The new Hungarian constitution: Reverberations

As usual, political commentators differ greatly in their assessment of the foreign reaction to the signing of the new constitution. Most people are pessimistic and keep repeating that a country’s constitution is an entirely domestic concern and no country, regardless of its size or importance, can interfere. Therefore, the argument goes, there will be official silence from international organizations and foreign ministries alike.

I agree that Hungary’s “friends” can’t force Viktor Orbán’s government to do anything, but there are other ways of influencing government actions which, strictly speaking, belong to the domestic sphere. Ostracizing the Hungarian prime minister or the Hungarian government is one way of putting pressure on Budapest. This is not the first time that Viktor Orbán is being ignored or snubbed. Such things happened during his first tenure as prime minister. It is enough to recall his desperate attempts to get an invitation to George W. Bush’s White House, to no avail. The same thing is happening again. While last fall János Martonyi triumphantly announced in Washington that an Orbán visit was in the offing, it turned out that he was far too optimistic. No invitation came. Then the U.S. State Department refused to commit Hillary Clinton to a trip to Budapest for the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Program and eventually the whole event was postponed. It will be held in Poland in the fall. A hastily arranged summit will be held in Warsaw at the end of May (at the same time as the originally scheduled Eastern Partnership Program gathering) and, behold, even the U.S. president will be able to attend.

These are all indications from the United States that not all is well with U.S.-Hungarian relations. But the United States is not the only country to speak in defense of democracy and freedom of the press in Hungary. Germany, France, and Luxembourg raised their official voices. So did the European Commission and Parliament. As a result, Hungary, in spite of initial protestation, had to change the most outrageous parts of the media law and the fight is still not over. An awful lot of members of the European Parliament and the European Council still think that the media law, even with the changes, is unacceptable in an EU country.

Some Hungarians are skeptical that the new constitution will make such a big splash abroad as the media law did. Among the commentators there was only one, János Avar, who kept repeating that the outrage over the media law was nothing in comparison to what will occur once the world has had an opportunity to read the new constitution. It is too early to say whether Avar is right, but there are signs that some very important international organizations and governments might have a few things to say about this “European scandal.”

Let’s start with the United Nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just spent three days in the Hungarian capital where he met with President Pál Schmitt, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Foreign Minister János Martonyi. After his talk with Schmitt Ban Ki-moon gave a press conference. In it he spoke appreciatively of Hungary’s travel from communism to democracy. Hungary, according to the secretary-general, has clear lessons for other countries where people are seeking freedom and change after decades of repression. “In the same spirit … I hope that the Hungarian Government will continue to promote its own reforms and uphold fundamental democratic principles. Freedom of expression is among those bedrock principles…. The new laws regulating the media must be in line with the European mainstream and Hungary’s own human rights obligations. I am aware that there have been some concerns raised among Hungary’s European neighbors and around the world and there are similar concerns about certain provisions of Hungary’s new Constitution. I would therefore welcome the Government’s willingness to seek advice and recommendations on some of these issues from others in Hungary as well as from the Council of Europe and the United Nations” (my emphasis). These are very strong words. And not terribly diplomatic.

On the very same day the German undersecretary for foreign affairs, Werner Hoyer, said the following about the adoption of the new Hungarian constitution. “Hungary has struggled in recent decades as a passionate advocate of freedom, human rights and democracy…. We, Germans, will never forget the support of our Hungarian friends…. Therefore we follow the Hungarian developments with great interest and growing concern. The beginning of the year witnessed the media law … which is difficult to reconcile with the values of the European Union. Our concern has been further deepened after the adoption of the new Hungarian constitution.”

Two very serious warnings to Budapest on the same day. The Hungarian government at this point had in my opinion only two options that I would consider to be acceptable in the world of diplomacy. To write a polite reply in which the minister of foreign affairs tries to explain that both the UN secretary-general and the German foreign ministry completely misunderstood the Hungarian constitution and he hopes that further study of the text will allay any existing fears concerning the future of Hungarian democracy. Or, second, the ministry shouldn’t make its answer public but write a polite though critical letter to Werner Hoyer.

The Hungarian foreign ministry’s fiery undersecretary, Zsolt Németh, opted for a third, in my opinion, very unfortunate alternative. He expressed his outrage that Werner Hoyer dares to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs. “For the Foreign Ministry [Hoyer’s] observations are unintelligible and unacceptable especially since the German diplomatic leadership, including Secretary Hoyer, received detailed information about the constitutional process.” Németh added that “we hope that in the future, given the intensity and friendly character of Hungarian-German relations, instead of official statements, we will be able to dispel any possible fears at bilateral negotiations.” And if that weren’t enough, the prime minister himself decided to enter the fray. His spokesman, Péter Szijjártó, conveyed Viktor Orbán’s message rather forcefully. Hungary simply will not tolerate any outside interference. “For decades Hungary had to endure people from other capitals wanting to tell us what to do or what we may do. They also told us what to include in the Hungarian constitution. These times are over.”

Last summer a Washington Post editorial warned Viktor Orbán about the possibility of ending up a pariah among nations. The Hungarian government is working hard to make that warning become a reality.

April 19, 2011