Hungary’s parliament is today expected to pass an amendment to its constitution which critics say will roll back democratic freedoms and weaken the judiciary.
This potentially puts the nation on a collision course with the EU after calls to postpone the vote were rebuffed.
Thousands of Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest over the weekend to protest the changes, which would allow the government to overrule objections from the Constitutional Court and push through measures including a ban on political campaigning in private media, a law requiring students who accept state scholarships to stay in Hungary and a ban on sleeping on the streets. “When they lay down in the constitution how those who have nowhere to go may or may not sleep on the street then we need to ask whether it’s us protesters who have gone crazy or those who write the constitution,” opposition activist Miklos Tamas Gaspar told protesters.
Critics accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of using his 2010 election win to consolidate power through control. Mr Orban frequently clashes with the EU, but has stepped back from controversial policies after pressure from Brussels.
The European Commission attempted the flex its muscles again on Friday, with its President, José Manuel Barroso, calling Mr Orbán to urge parliament to address concerns over the amendments “in accordance with EU democratic principles”.
The Council of Europe – a human rights body independent from the EU – had earlier asked Mr Orbán to delay the vote, arguing that the changes “might endanger the fundamental principle of checks and balances in a democracy”.
That call was rejected, with a representative of the ruling Fidesz party saying Hungary would not bow to external pressure. Mr Orbán pledged Hungary’s “full commitment” to European norms.
The constitutional amendment effectively annuls any decisions made by the Constitutional Court prior to the introduction of a new constitution last year. It is widely expected to pass.
The European Union must then decide whether to take action. The matter could be raised when heads of state gather in Brussels on Thursday. The EU also has the power to strip a country of voting rights, but only after a laborious process.
Rui Tavares, a Portuguese MEP working on a report about the compatibility of Hungary’s new constitution with European values, said that the process was “very fragmentary and limited”.
“You have to ensure that the judiciary in every member state is compatible with these values we have in the treaties,” he told The Independent.
Germany, The Netherlands, Finland and Denmark have been lobbying for a watchdog to bring errant member states in line, which would have the power to strip a nation of EU funding.