I watched the debate with the exception of Orbán's opening remarks, but I'm sure that they will soon be available on video. Orbán's closing comments were weak and ill placed. His reference to a Christian Europe was most unfortunate. It showed how little Orbán and Fidesz politicians in general understand the European reality today.
Since I just finished watching the parliamentary debates I'm not quite ready to give a coherent summary of a very long discussion. Instead, I think it would be better to go over the details of the infringement proceedings. A heated debate is one thing, but an official complaint coming from the European Commission is something else.
Yesterday I wrote that the Commission had started legal action against Hungary over the independence of the central bank and data protection authorities as well as over measures affecting the judiciary. So let's see what the particulars are.
Independence of the national central bank. First one has to become familiar with EU language. TFEU is the acronym for the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The Commission identified breaches of Article 130 TFEU stipulating full independence of the central bank and Article 127(4) TFEU requiring consultation with the European Central Bank "on any draft legislative provision in its field of competence." Article 130 states that "neither the ECB, nor national central bodies … shall seek or take instructions from Community institutions or any government of a Member State or from any other body."
So, let see how the Hungarian law is in conflict with these articles. Under the new law the minister in charge of finance can participate directly in the meetings of the Monetary Council, the body that sets monetary policy. The agenda of the Hungarian National Bank must be sent to the government in advance, a practice that precludes confidential discussions. The governor and the members of the Monetary Council must take an oath of fidelity to the country and its interests. This is also problematic from the Union's point of view since the governor of the Hungarian National Bank is also a member of the General Council of the European Central Bank.
There are more problems with the new law. For example, the rules governing the dismissal of the governor and the members of the Monetary Council. Even parliament can propose dismissing a member of the Monetary Council. Here we don't have even a pretense of the bank's independence.
Independence of the judiciary. The European Commission focused on the decision of the government to lower the retirement age of judges from 70 to 62 as of January 1, 2012. EU rules on equal treatment in employment (Directive 2000/78/EC) prohibit discrimination on the basis of age. Under the case law of the Court of Justice, "an objective and proportionate justification is needed if a government decides to reduce the retirement age for one group of people and not for others." In Hungary's case, the commission has not found any objective justification for treating judges differently from other groups, especially at a time when all across Europe the retirement age is being increased instead of being lowered. This move is especially suspicious because Hungary already indicated to the European Union that it intends to raise the general retirement age to 65.
The Commission also found the selection of judges problematic. Under the new law, the president of a new National Judicial Office concentrates powers concerning the operational management of the courts, human resources, budget, and allocation of cases. The same person is alone responsible for the appointment of judges. The Commission also wanted to know why the chief justice of the Supreme Court was dismissed whan other judges in the same body could continue their work. The Commission expects detailed answers. (If you ask me, the Hungarian government will be very reluctant to give in on this issue.)
Independence of the data protection supervisory authority. Instead of a single ombudsman being in charge of data protection the Hungarian government created a new National Agency for Data Protection. As a result, the six-year term of the Data Protection Commissioner was prematurally terminated. New rules were also created that allow the prime minister and the president to dismiss the new supervisor on arbitrary grounds. The independence of data protection supervisors is guaranteed under Article 15 TFEU and Article 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. In addition, there is a rule (Directive 95/46/EC) that insists on complete independence of the commissioner.
* * *
Viktor Orbán's answer to all this today in Strasbourg was rather feeble. He wasn't surprised about the increased interest in Hungary because in the last year and a half "comprehensive, deep, magnificent and exciting renewal has occurred" in his country. He claimed that this renewal was necessary because in 2010 Hungary was threatened with economic and financial collapse. This claim is patently without foundation. It is enough to compare the economic statistics; the situation is a great deal graver now than it was in April 2010. He announced that the problems outlined above can be easily and quickly remedied. Obviously, he is hoping for a few changes in wording that would be no more than window dressing. He emphasized that none of the objections raised by the Commission touches the new constitution. LMP and MSZP immediately called Orbán a liar on that score.
Then came a long discussion during which Viktor Orbán's countenance visibly darkened.
Viktor Orbán is listening but not comprehending
After three hours of some very harsh criticism Orbán might have been a bit shaken, but outwardly he retained his composure and returned to his favorite themes: war and struggle. "Hungary was always a land of freedom fighters and it will remain such." This can be taken as a promise that he will not give up his struggle against the European Union in the name of national sovereignty.
His closing remarks didn't really touch on the essence of the criticism, meaning that the new constitution and the cardinal laws are paving the way to an autocratic, non-democratic system. Instead, he called attention to the ignorance of his critics and the political bias of his opponents. He repeated the same themes some of the Fidesz EP members had already touched on during the debate: the people who criticize have never read the constitution, they don't know the real situation in Hungary, and they should visit the country in order to get to know the Hungarians.
I don't think that Viktor Orbán managed to convince any of his critics that Hungary is a democratic paradise.