Hungarian President János Áder returned from Berlin where he presumably got an earful. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave their opinions about the Hungarian government’s policies in general and the latest outrage in Budapest: the castration of the constitutional court and the destruction of the most basic principle of constitutional rule, the separation of powers.
While in Berlin Áder told reporters that he tried to enlighten the German politicians about the true nature of the amended constitution and assure them that their criticism was unfounded. Their criticism is based on their lack of knowledge of the details, he claimed. At home demonstrators and public figures tried to convince the president that he should refuse to sign the bill. But some legal scholars argued that Áder, as a result of the amendments, has no choice but to sign the document. Others, including László Sólyom, former head of the Hungarian constitutional court, argued that he does have the power to deny his signature. After all, as long as his signature is not on the bill, the old constitution is still in force and that constitution didn’t take his prerogative away. Áder decided to opt for the first interpretation. He announced that he has no choice but to sign.
Áder made the announcement on MTV, Hungary’s public television station. While a day before he was convinced that all was well with the amended constitution, in “his speech to the nation” he didn’t stress this point. Instead, he told his audience that he had studied the amendments carefully, listened to experts, read all the letters he received. But “a responsible thinking citizen cannot urge anyone to disregard the letter of the law. This is especially true in the case of the president because if he were to step onto the path of unconstitutionality there would be only one consequence. Something none of us wants. Chaos. Anarchy. Illegality.” And then he quoted the words in the newly amended constitution that he hadn’t yet signed: “The President of the Republic shall sign the Fundamental Law or the amendment thereof sent to him within five days of receipt and shall order its publication in the Official Gazette.” So, he claimed that he has no choice but to sign, adding that this is his duty regardless of whether he personally likes the amendments or not.
Representatives of the new university student movement, HaHa, pointed out that he could have resigned. But no, Áder belongs to the inner sanctum of Fidesz. He has served Viktor Orbán well for years. He wavered only once, after the second lost election in 2006, when he apparently joined the ranks of those who thought that it might not be a bad idea if Viktor Orbán retired.
Tamás Deutsch, his old friend, was elated with his decision to sign. On Twitter Deutsch wrote: “You also know Jánó that THIS is what we once dreamed of.” Does it mean that these guys have been planning to destroy Hungarian democracy for the last twenty-four years? Let’s hope not.
While Áder was returning to Budapest, Orbán was getting ready to travel to Brussels to take part in one of the periodic summits of the European Council. The European Council is supposed to define “the general political directions and priorities” of the Union. It is the EU’s strategic and crisis solving body, acting as the collective presidency of the EU.
Given “the unparalleled uproar” in Brussels and other capitals over Viktor Orbán’s defiance of the European Union, the interest in the Hungarian prime minister was more intense than usual. Normally he doesn’t talk to reporters before these meetings, but this time the Hungarians organized an “international press conference.” Orbán managed to avoid answering questions by insisting that he didn’t want to hear opinions; he demanded ” facts.” Since foreign reporters are not experts in the minutiae of the Hungarian constitution, the “dialogue” became rather strange. He kept repeating: “I beg you, only the facts!” because so far he hasn’t been presented with any proof that what Hungary is doing is unconstitutional.
All in all, he was very cocky and sure of himself. Luke Baker, Reuters’ reporter in Brussels, tweeted: “Hungary’s Orban smiling like a Cheshire cat as he comes into press conference with international media to defend constitutional changes.” I’d wager to say that Baker had the original Cheshire Cat in mind, not the jolly fellow that appeared in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The original cat as depicted by John Tenniel, the illustrator of the 1866 publication of Lewis Carroll’s book, is a much more sinister character.
Orbán might get off his high horse soon because there are new developments afoot. One is that, according to “reliable information,” the “Hungarian question” will be on the table at the summit. Second, the German parliament (Bundestag) spent more than an hour today on the amendments to the Hungarian constitution. The initiative came from the social democrats, but all parties joined the socialists in demanding strong action on the part of Germany and Angela Merkel. At the same time Viviane Reding, European commissioner of justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, warned Hungary of severe consequences as a result of Budapest’s latest moves. Reding talked about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty and added that Hungary’s subsidies might be cut. “The Constitution is not a toy that can be changed every six months.” (The students said exactly the same thing.)
Orbán may appear to be unruffled, but all observers agree that the situation is serious. There are signs of impatience and annoyance in Brussels at Orbán’s provocations and games with the European Union. This time he might have gone too far.