In a new challenge to the European Union the Hungarian parliament has, by a large majority, enacted a set of constitutional amendments that limit the powers of the Constitutional Court, threaten the independence of the justice system in general, and interfere with religious freedom. Some of these changes voted in by the legislature, which is under the absolute control of the conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, are a repeat of those proposed a little over a year ago and canceled at the last minute in the face of pressure from Brussels, with the promise to abandon them definitively.
The populist Orbán’s monopolization of power is also apparent in his policy of filling key posts in political, economic and judicial institutions with unconditional adherents of his policies. This, no doubt, has a good deal to do with the fact that his party, which in 2010 obtained two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, has lately plunged in the opinion polls. Nor is it by chance that the curtailment of the Constitutional Court’s powers is being proposed again after the justices in January overturned the prime minister’s plans to recast the electoral system so as to weigh it in favor of his party for the 2014 elections.
The undermining of democratic checks and balances in Hungary is a serious matter, and not only from the domestic viewpoint. For the EU it represents a new and serious snag in its policy of consolidating democracy in Central and Eastern European countries, once under Soviet domination and brought into the EU in the last decade. The precarious position of institutions and of civil liberties is especially important in the southeastern flank of the Union, where member states such as Romania and Bulgaria are facing growing difficulties in governability, aggravated by the intensity of the economic crisis.
Lack of teeth
The authoritarian drift in Budapest calls for renewed, energetic measures of pressure on the part of its EU partner states, but also highlights the paucity of practical rapid-response resources to admonish fractious members.
It is true that Brussels has in its arsenal some attention-getting mechanisms of reprisal, ranging from relevant economic sanctions to the withdrawal of voting rights. But these instruments — the application of which requires numerous intermediate steps and tortuous legal channels — are more theoretical than real in an EU that essentially operates on the basis of consensus between the 27 states.