Hungary and the EU: A Constitutional Crisis

The Right Wing-Populist policies of the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, symbolized by dropping the term ‘Republic’ from the name of the country, has created a constitutional crisis within the European Union (EU). Hungary recently held the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, from January to July 2011.  When Victor Orban went to Brussels to set out his goals for his term, he was vigorously criticized especially for his new law concerning the media which many journalists and others consider as setting unacceptable limits on media freedom. Orban has also pushed legislation and a new constitution which requires the retirement of all judges older than 62 — a policy thought to favor the naming of new judges favorable to Orban’s party Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ).

These policies have raised discussions, both public and especially private, among members of the European Parliament, the European Commission (the executive body of the EU) and European Commission civil servants. What should be the policy of the European Union when one of its members takes decisions that to some extent violate the spirit of the Charter of Fundamental Rights? (This is charter is the ‘Bill of Rights’ of the EU, largely based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of 1950 established by the Council of Europe for civil and political rights and the European Charter of 1961 for economic and social rights). What are appropriate sanctions against such a State? What type of encouragement can be offered for a return to more democratic policies?  What are the limits of ‘national sovereignty’ within the EU?  All these are important constitutional questions that are posed to the EU which is not a state but is more an alliance among states for limited purposes, such as NATO.

Thus the Hungarian issues pose fundamental questions to other EU governments, as well as to European civil society and European trans-frontier political parties. The Hungarian Green (Ecological) Party has been leading the opposition to Orban’s policies with street demonstrations and the use of street theatre as satire. The Greens have gone the furthest among European political parties in trying to create a unified, trans-frontier political party with common positions and solidarity with each national section.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Green leader in the European Parliament, has been the most outspoken foreign critic of Orban’s policies and has tried to organize ecological and human rights groups to take action on the situation within Hungary.  Cohn-Bendit had been friends with Orban back in 1989-1990 when Orban was a student leader pushing for democratic changes in Hungary. How a student leader working for a more democratic, liberal society becomes the leader of a conservative-nationalist force is a snapshot of 20 years of East European history.

Victor Orban showed his political talents early as a law school student leader reaching out to older European activists in Poland and Czechoslovakia.  His talents were spotted early, and he was granted a Soros scholarship for a year of political studies at Oxford University. On his return to Hungary, he developed the student movement into a political party —FIDESZ. Most of the students and young graduates, who made up the core of the party, came from cities and larger towns. However, Orban saw the usefulness in appealing to the farming–rural sector of the population.  The old agrarian party which had existed during the Communist period as a rural front of the Communist Party was discredited, and small farmers were not attracted to the urbanized Socialist Party which was a mixed coalition of former Communists as well as their intellectual critics.  Thus Orban appealed to the rural milieu with a mixture of nationalist symbols, with an overtone of religion and a paternalistic style ‘we will protect you from the dangers of the modern world which may destroy your values.’

By 1998, his organizing ability had transformed a student movement into a major political party. After the 1998 elections, he was named Prime Minister. At the age of 35, he was the youngest Prime Minister in Europe. However, being a good political organizer does not necessarily make a good government administrator.  He had difficulties translating his rather sentimental nationalist ideology into government policies, especially considering that European Union directives, about which he knew nothing, are more and more important in setting policies at the national level.

As Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002, he tried to do too many things too fast.  He started with a radical reform of the State administration, reorganizing ministries, creating a super-ministry for the economy, restructuring the Central Bank, and in 1998, joining NATO.  He did not have competent civil servants loyal to his party to run the new administration. He antagonized the opposition members of Parliament with an attitude of contempt and developed the image of an arrogant ‘know it all’.  Thus in the 2002 Parliamentary elections, his party was defeated in favour of the Socialist Party.

Too young to be permanently discouraged by electoral defeat, he spent the 8 years during which the Socialist Party was in power, continuing to organize political groups at the local level and trying to develop a narrow nationalist sentiment that he could use without playing on the anti-Rom and anti-Jewish currents which have often been part of Hungarian nationalism. There was to his right an even more narrow nationalist party, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, which was trying to appeal to the same voters. He also spent time learning how the European Union institutions work, and what the multilateral financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund does.

His organizing ability and weaknesses in the administrative record of the Socialists was such that in 2010 he returned to power with a 2/3 majority in Parliament.  With 2/3 of the members, the system of checks and balances written into the old Constitution was no longer operative.  In any case, he had decided to write a new Constitution which placed even fewer checks on an executive power. With his 2/3 majority in Parliament, the new Constitution was passed this December 2011.

The EU constitutional crisis over Hungary takes place against a background of Hungary’s economic weakness. Hungarian government bonds have been listed as ‘junk’ by the rating agencies, and the European Commission ordered Malev, the Hungarian national airline, to repay hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal state aid – that is Hungarian government aid which Malev would not have been able to secure on the market given its unprofitable condition. The European Commission has a policy of preventing government aid to businesses under more favorable conditions that those that would be set by a bank in order to prevent unfair competition. Hungary is also in negotiations both with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for an $8 billion dollar credit. For the moment, only China has come to Hungary’s financial aid.

It would be unfair to think that the EU constitutional crisis will be solved by Hungary’s financial difficulties. ‘Blackmail’ as such is not the EU style, but constitutional issues are also set in a specific economic context.  Much may depend on how strong a European liberal spirit exists in Hungary and if the Greens are able to mobilize this spirit to limit the government’s narrow nationalist drive.  The situation merits close observation.

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and editor of the on-line journal of world politics and culture: