World and Nation

Hungary tests the European Union’s norms

For Hungary, still seeking national accord on what constitutes democracy, and for Europe, still uncertain how to treat governments deemed to have strayed from European Union norms, Monday produced a symbolic moment in the annals of protecting civil rights.

On a state visit to Germany, President Janos Ader of Hungary visited a prison in Berlin where East Germany’s dreaded secret police, the Stasi, held thousands of political prisoners, including some of the harshest critics of the now defunct Communist regime.

Back in Hungary, lawmakers from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and its small ally, the Christian Democrats, passed a lengthy amendment to the constitution that critics, including human rights activists, the Council of Europe, the EU and the United States, fear could undermine the judiciary, silence criticism, and threaten the checks and balances of democratic government.

“We are not yet North Korea, but this amendment is extremely alarming because it removes constitutional control and checks over the Legislature,” said Peter Hack, a leading professor of constitutional law at ELTE University in Budapest. “It is a bald and dangerous power grab.”

While even the government’s staunchest critics acknowledge that Hungary, an EU member, has put communism far behind it, thousands took to the streets of Budapest over the weekend to protest the changes, and the opposition Socialists boycotted the vote. Constitutional experts said the amendment, passed in the 386-seat Parliament 265-11, with 33 abstentions, will allow the government to reintroduce measures rejected by the constitutional court over the last 18 months.

These include a law requiring students who received state scholarships to stay in Hungary or pay them back if they leave; a ban on political advertising in private media; and a law allowing local authorities, in the name of public order, to fine or jail homeless people living on the street.

The passing of the amendment comes amid growing concerns that the center-right government of Orban, which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and came to power in 2010, is trying to tighten its grip, including in the judiciary, the media, the central bank, education, and even cultural life. It has laid bare the limits of the European Union in calling to account member states it fears have transgressed its democratic norms.