I know that you will be very disappointed that I'm temporarily suspending my biographies of the less than qualified nominees for the Constitutional Court, but right now there are far too many other topics that demand our attention. Perhaps during the weekend I will be able to return to that sorry list.
There are so many interesting developments that I find it difficult to choose: Gyurcsány and MSZP; the accusation that the CEO of MOL bribed the former prime minister of Croatia, Ivo Sanader, for a majority share in INA, a state-owned oil refinery; Fidesz–KDNP MPs who are practicing lawyers and who turned against the Fidesz proposal that would restrict defense lawyers' access to their clients; and the Hungarian Constitution and the Venice Commission. I decided to write about this last item today.
In early March I wrote about a news item that informed the public that Tibor Navracsics, minister of public administration and justice, asked the Venice Commission to pass judgment on certain passages of the constitution. At this point the text of the whole document wasn't yet available, and suspicious commentators interpreted Navracsics's gesture as an insurance policy. If there is later criticism of the constitution as a whole, the Hungarian government can refer to the Commission's earlier opportunity to pass judgment on the constitutional process.
On April 17-18 a delegation of the Venice Commission headed by Thomas Markert spent a day and a half in Budapest. They met Tibor Navracsics again and also wanted to talk to the foreign minister about "the question of Hungarians living outside the borders." Markert cautiously remarked that a lot will depend on the "cardinal laws" numbering over forty. From his remarks it was clear that the Commission could not yet form a definite opinion. They would study the text carefully.
Once the new constitution became law on April 11 the Commission at last could sit down and scrutinize the text. On April 25 Markert in the European Parliament was much more explicit. He expressed his worries about the incredible number of "cardinal laws," all of which would need a two-thirds parliamentary majority to change. This would unduly limit the scope of subsequent governments. In addition, he complained about the short length of time that passed between the text of the constitution being made public and its becoming the law of the land five weeks later. The Commission was also unhappy about the limitations put on the Constitutional Court. The Commission wasn't too thrilled with the preamble either. For example, the definition of the nation may exclude minorities living in the country. At the same time the reference to the defense of Hungarians living outside of Hungary's borders may trouble the neighboring countries.
In early June Népszabadság got hold of a document that expressed the Commission's misgivings about the new Hungarian constitution. In it the Commission was much more explicit. In the opinion of the document's authors, Cristoph Grabenwarter (Austria), Wolfgang Hoffmann–Riem (Germany), Hanna Suchocka (Poland), Kaarlo Tuori (Finland) and Jan Velaers (Belgium), the numerous cardinal laws "decrease the importance of elections." In plain language, the political ideas and practices of the current government will perpetuate ad infinitum because it will rarely happen that one political formation will be able to achieve a two-thirds majority. It is also unlikely, knowing the past attitude of Fidesz, that after a lost election the party would be willing to come to a political understanding with the government party or parties on certain issues.
When the Commission's final report became available, it was clear that the Commission was indeed "vexed by Hungary's new constitution," as The Wall Street Journal described their reaction. The report is 29 pages long, and the Commission outlined its comments in 150 points. I have neither time nor space to detail these objections, but since the report is available in English there is no need to do so anyway.
The cardinal laws especially worry the members of the Commission. Thomas Markert at a press conference said that they found "50 references to cardinal law–not only in cases where it would seem to make sense, … but also in cases such as the taxation or the pension system. We should make a difference between policies and principles."
The Hungarian government's reaction was predictable. József Szájer, Fidesz EP MP and allegedly the author of the constitution, was outraged and accused the members of the Venice Commission of ignorance. They misunderstood a lot of things because "they are not familiar with Hungarian law." He was also upset at the suggestion that the new constitution was accepted without proper consultation. After all, "almost one million Hungarian citizens unanimously expressed their opinion." I can only hope that the members of the Commission are unfamiliar with the questions posed on the questionnaire or with the fact that most of the answers arrived after the final text was already approved. And I guess Szájer didn't tell them that out of eight million questionnaires only 950,000 people bothered to send them back. Moreover, the answers didn't receive public scrutiny, and therefore we have no idea what the returned answers really were.
Szájer also accused the members of the Commission of not acting professionally . "They have been unable to avoid the influence of ideological attacks on the constitution that developed in the last few months." So, he accuses them being politically motivated. Szájer expressed his ire toward the Commission on his blog and in Hungarian, but I doubt that his words will remain a Hungarian secret for long. Someone will sit down and translate his tirades. For anyone who's interested in the job, here is the link to Szájer's blog.
Even if the Venice Commission didn't yet read Szájer's blog, surely by now they know that the Hungarian government is unwilling to follow the advice of the Commission. Whether this will be the final word on the subject we don't know. After all, Viktor Orbán swore that not one word of the media law would be changed and yet a couple of months later the Hungarian government was forced to retreat somewhat.
Hungary's relations with Slovakia have been pretty rocky for years, and it is unlikely that they will improve in the near future. The Venice Commission's report actually strengthened Slovakia's hand in their opinion on national minority issues and dual citizenship. As Mikulás Dzurinda, Slovakia's foreign minister, said today, "the Venice Commission's views on certain points are identical to the Slovak point of view."
According to Péter Balázs, Hungarian foreign minister in the Bajnai government, it was a big mistake to refuse to deal with the Venice Commission's criticism. It is very possible that the leaked prediction of the Slovenian prime minister, Borut Pahor, about Hungary's isolation by other European countries might not be an idle threat. As far as Hungary's relations with her neighbors, Balázs doesn't expect any change for the better until 2014.