Because of the apparent confusion over the makeup of European organizations that have looked into issues concerning Hungary, I thought that I would write about some of the most important ones.
First, the Council of Europe (in Hungarian Európa Tanács) with headquarters in Strasbourg, France. It was established in 1949, originally by ten European nations, but by now it covers practically the whole continent. The Council currently has forty-seven members.
Before a country is admitted it is subjected to a thorough investigation to determine whether it adheres to the democratic principles that are based on the European Convention on Human Rights. This investigation is called “monitoring.” I may add here that if the Council of Europe’s plenary session decides to monitor Hungary in October, it would be the first time that such a procedure is launched against a country that is already a member.
The Council’s decision-making body is called the Committee of Ministers; it is made up of the ministers of foreign affairs of each member state. It is this body that decides Council of Europe policy; it approves its budget and the program of its activities.
The deliberative body of the Counil is the Parliamentary Assemby (PACE). Its members are appointed by the national parliaments of each member state. If a decision is rendered against Hungary, it will be this body that will make the call.
Another body of the Council of Europe that we hear a lot about is the European Court of Human Rights. Hungary is currently at odds with this court, which is the supreme legal body in Europe. Its decisions are final.
The background of the controversy is as follows. According to Hungarian law, with the stamp of approval of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, wearing a red star is illegal. A few years back a member of the Hungarian Workers’ Party challenged the law and took his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. The decision came down in his favor and the Hungarian socialist-liberal government had to pay a few thousand euros to the plaintiff. But the Hungarian government didn’t change the law; it simply paid the fine.
So another communist party member challenged the law, and again the case ended up at the European Court of Human Rights. As was expected, the court decided in the favor of the man. However, the Orbán government refuses to pay the 6,000 euros to the plaintiff. That is apparently a first in the history of the court. Only a couple of days ago an undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice with a law degree announced with a straight face that the government will not pay because the Hungarian Constitutional Court considered the law constitutional. He ought to know that the European Court of Human Rights’ decision overrules contrary opinions by the constitutional courts of the individual members.
The latest nonsense is the suggestion by Mária Wittner (Fidesz, but would fit better with the Jobbik delegation) and Bence Stágel (KDNP) that MSZP should pay the member of the Workers’ Party the six thousand euros!
But in case anyone thinks that the court is biased against the current Hungarian administration, just today it ruled on an old case from 2007. Two men hung dirty laundry on the cordon around the parliament building without first announcing their intention to the police. The Court didn’t accept the Hungarian police’s defense and awarded 1,500 euros to the two men. We will see what the answer of the Orbán government will be in this case. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government will refuse to pay the fine because after all the incident occurred during the previous administration.
The Secretary General of the Council of Europe is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly for five years on the recommendation of the Council of Ministers. The current secretary general is Thorbjørn Jagland, former prime minister of Norway. The Secretariat is a large body of 2,000 permanent employees coming from all 47 member states.
And finally, let us consider the Venice Commission and its relation to the Council of Europe. The full name of the commission is European Commission for Democracy through Law; it is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters. Established in 1990, it has played an important role as an independent think-tank. It also provides advice and criticism to nations adopting new constitutions. That’s why Hungary ended up in a serious conflict with the Venice Commission. It meets four times a year–in March, June, October and December–in Venice. 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.” The members are senior legal scholars well versed in constitutional and international law.
All Council of Europe member states are also members of the Venice Commission in addition to some countries outside of Europe. The Commision has 58 full members in all.
Hungary actually asked the Venice Commission to take a look at the new Hungarian Constitution, but when the Commission presented a 30-page critique of the document in March the Hungarian government brushed aside their recommendations. The question of the new constitution is still in limbo as are many other issues centering around European expectations about democratic norms. The full report of the Commission can be read here. And it is certainly worth rereading Professor Kim Scheppele’s article on Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times. Hungary’s troubles with the Council of Europe are far from over.