There are signs that Strasbourg and Brussels have decided to change gears and speed up the slow moving vehicles of the Council of Europe and the European Union.
It was Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland of the Council of Europe who was the first to indicate on Monday that the latest amendments to the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian Constitution are an inadequate answer to the most recent objections of the Council and the European Commission. In an interview with the German liberal paper, Der Tagelsspiegel, he indicated that as far as political advertisement is concerned, Hungary’s attempt to make a distinction between European and national elections is unacceptable. From the interview it also became evident that German President Joachim Gauck, who visited the Council of Europe the other day, shared his own worries about the Hungarian situation with Jagland. Still, I must say that Mr. Jagland is naive if he thinks that because Klubrádió managed to retain its frequency all is well on the media front, that “the freedom of expression is now assured and the press can work without any hindrance.”
A couple of words first about the Council of Europe; even the Council’s website admits that there is a lot of confusion about the Council and its relationship to the European Union. The Council came into being in 1949 with a membership of ten countries, but by now it covers virtually the entire European continent (47 members). The Council of Europe “seeks to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals.” If in a member state questions about democracy, the rule of law, or a violation of human rights surface, the Council of Europe may set up either a temporary or a permanent monitoring mechanism. Until now such monitoring procedures were applied only in countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union and in some countries in the Balkans. Now it seems that the so-called monitoring committee suggested bringing to a vote in the parliament of the Council of Europe whether Orbán Viktor’s Hungary should be monitored.
The vote in the committee was very close. The decision to move forward passed by a single vote, mostly because the members of the European People’s Party to which Fidesz belongs decided to vote against the resolution en bloc. The final word naturally lies with the parliament as a whole. The vote will take place sometime in June, about the same time that the Venice Commission’s final report is released. I should add that the Venice Commission, which is composed of constitutional and international law experts, is an independent advisory body to the Council of Europe.
Meanwhile the European Commission’s own legal team has also been busy, and EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said this morning that the legal analysis “will lead, probably, to infringement procedures and this will happen rather quickly.” She also indicated that she had already written to Budapest that a preliminary analysis raised questions about the rule of law in Hungary.
We often talk about infringement procedures, but I suspect that we don’t fully understand what they entail. Since the European Commission seems to be fairly certain that the legal changes in Hungary warrant such a move, it is time to get familiar with the details. Each member state is responsible for the implementation of EU law within its own legal system; it is the European Commission that is responsible for ensuring that EU law is correctly applied. If a member state fails to comply, the Commission has “powers of its own to try to bring the infringement to an end and, where necessary, they refer the case to the European Court of Justice.” First, a letter of formal notice is presented to the member state in which the Commission asks the member state to comply within a given time limit. If the member state fails to comply, the Commission will refer the case to the European Court of Justice.
All in all, although by Brussels standards these procedures are taking less time than usual, it will be a long time before they bear fruit, if at all. Moreover, Orbán still has many tricks up his sleeve. Just wait until Brussels takes a good look at the electoral law. After all, the text of the law is now available in the Magyar Közlöny. There will be many unpleasant surprises there, I’m sure.
Let me shift topics to end on a more humorous note. Actually, just like everything else in Orbán’s Hungary, it has its tragic elements.
I’m sure that you all remember that the Fidesz ideologues have been targeting street names they consider to be ideologically unacceptable. Not surprisingly, the forbidden names are practically all connected with the left. At least I didn’t see Miklós Horthy or Adolf Hitler on the list. To the everlasting shame of the Historical Institute attached to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, it accepted the odious task of determining whose name can be used and whose cannot. Here is the list.
Good beginning: Alkotmány (Constitution), decision: usable. Reason: although its use as a street name became frequent during the socialist period it cannot be forbidden because then we would have to consider the word “constitution” directly connected to dictatorship. Moreover, in this case the name of the Alkotmánybíróság (Constitutional Court) would also have to be to be changed. 🙂
The learned historians decided that the word “Fejlődés” which means “development” is OK even though it was also used during the socialist period. “Liberation” (Felszabadulás) is out, but “Haladás” (Progress) and “Győzelem (Victory) are acceptable. I was also happy to hear that Attila József, Hungary’s greatest poet, can have a street or square of his own although he was at one point a member of the illegal communist party in the 1930s.
“Köztársaság” (Republic) is still allowed. But “Partisan” is out. And Mihály Károlyi is definitely out. After all, they consider him responsible for Trianon, a real falsification of history. György Lukács is on the forbidden list even though he was a member of the Imre Nagy government in 1956 and consequently narrowly avoided execution. Writers and poets are not spared either: Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovski are blacklisted. Karl Marx is “usable but worrisome” (használható, de aggályos). May 1 is OK. I was relieved to hear that the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) was spared! Nice to hear that “Szabadság” (Freedom) is not yet banned but let’s just wait! I might add that several social democratic politicians active before World War II are also banned.
A real testament to democracy in action!