Yesterday there was a news item that surprised a lot of people, including me. MTI reported on a press conference held by Tibor Navracsics, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Administration and Justice. Navracsics said that he had met with delegates of the Venice Commission whom he had invited to Hungary to discuss Hungarian plans for drafting a new basic law. Moreover, he added, he wanted to receive "direction from the highly respected body concerning Hungary's future constitution."
First of all, what is this Venice Commission all about? The last time the Hungarian public heard about the institution was sometime around 2005 when it became known that, although Fidesz was supporting the referendum to grant citizenship to Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, earlier while in power they had assured the Venice Commission that giving "Hungarian identification papers" to ethnic Hungarians should in no way be construed as granting citizenship to Hungarians abroad.
I doubt that too many people knew then or know now what this mysterious Venice Commission is. Its full name is European Commission for Democracy through Law. It is the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters. Initially conceived as a tool for emergency constitutional engineering, the commission has become an internationally recognized independent legal think tank. It is composed of “independent experts who have achieved eminence through their experience in democratic institutions or by their contribution to the enhancement of law and political science.”
According to its web site, Navracsics approached the Commission on February 18 asking "for the Venice Commission's assistance with respect to certain issues arising in the framework of the preparation of a new Constitution." The experts promised the "relevant opinion of the Commission" on March 25-26, 2011.
I decided to take a look at the political situation surrounding the drafting of the constitution about the time Navracsics decided to ask the Commission's assistance. Is this date at all significant? Indeed, it is. Because it was a few days prior to February 18 that both MSZP and LMP decided not to participate in further discussions about the constitution. Thus Fidesz, later joined by Jobbik, had sole responsibility for creating a new document. And that didn't look good. It is likely that at this point the Orbán government felt that they needed cover and decided to enlist the aid of an international body.
Let's see what Navracsics had to say about the visit of the Venice Commission's dignitaries. Why were they invited and what were they supposed to sanction, if anything? He emphasized three topics: the inclusion of some provisions of the European Constitution in the chapter on human rights, the current practice that anyone can ask the Constitutional Court for an opinion, and the question of public scrutiny of the text. As for the last topic, the members of the Commission thought that one and half months for creating a constitution "might be an inconvenience to the opposition parties." How delicately put by Navracsics!
From his press conference it became clear that he tried to counter this worry by telling his visitors that after all the necessity of creating a new constitution has been in the forefront of discussions ever since 1995 and thus there was plenty of opportunity to ponder over the details. This is of course not really true. Yes, in 1995 there was an attempt to write a new constitution, but the new basic law didn't pass in the House and since then there has been practically no discussion of the matter. Fidesz itself didn't talk about a new constitution in the last ten years. Over all, said Navracsics, "the Venice Commission found those basic principles and institutional solutions that will appear in the constitution as they are outlined in the current plans encouraging." So, Navracsics tried to convey the idea that the Venice Commission has given the new constitution its seal of approval.
What Navracsics wasn't counting on was that, as the Commission's website clearly states, the members of the delegation to Budapest were also planning to talk with leaders of the opposition. As it turned out from Ferenc Gyurcsány's blog this morning, he was one of the opposition leaders who had an opportunity to meet with the delegates.
The government's decision to get the Venice Commission on its side reminds Gyurcsány of a typical Fidesz ploy: to get a legal opinion on a few unimportant issues and then try to explain that a positive legal opinion on a part applies to the whole. The most famous or rather infamous use of this trick was in connection with the rather shady affairs of the Orbán family in the purchase and cultivation of a sizeable vineyard in Tokaj. Orbán and some of his cronies purchased a vineyard and used Orbán's position as prime minister to get extra money and special business deals. However, the whole conspiracy came to light when the estranged wife of one of the business partners spilled the beans.
The partners used to get together in Orbán's house for dinner and after dinner they discussed business. The "guys" retired "to hold a meeting of the corporation" while the wives took care of the dishes. That is what they themselves called these discussions. Once the story came to light and was published in ÉS Fidesz sued. The issue they picked wasn't the truthfulness of the report on the shady business practices but whether the discussions they held occasionally after dinner were official meetings of the corporation. The judge decided that they weren't. From there on Fidesz claimed that they had proof that the whole story was no more than a concoction. After all, the courts decided that Orbán was innocent.
According to Gyurcsány something like that is going on now with the Venice Commission and the constitution. The Venice Commission was asked to offer their opinion on the three points I mentioned earlier. Gyurcsány writes in his blog that is not free to share the opinion of the commission members on the constitution, but he can say that their mandate is restricted to these three not terribly important aspects of the constitution. Gyurcsány finishes his blog with these words: "I'm telling you now: if the government tries to cover its tracks with the Venice Commission and wants to make us believe that they received the stamp of approval of this highly respected international body they will be lying. As Fidesz lied in the Tokaj affair."