The tensions between the EU and Hungary were on full display in Budapest on Hungary's independence day. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used a rally on 15 March to blast the EU, declaring that Hungary will not be a colony and that the Union will not tell Hungarians how to conduct their domestic affairs.
But the EU can hardly ignore the actions of Orbán's ruling Fidesz party. Using its super-majority in the parliament, the party has spent its two years in office ramming through a new constitution that includes discriminatory provisions and other new laws that undermine media freedom, judicial independence, and the rights of religious minorities.
The latest criticism of the demise of Hungary's democratic credentials comes from the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional affairs – the Venice Commission. On 20 March, the expert body published a scathing report saying that changes to judicial appointment procedures, moves to force judges into retirement, and vesting power to assign cases in a single individual threaten judicial independence and the right to a fair trial itself.
The Hungarian government has sought to explain away the criticism by saying that the translations of the laws may be incorrect. It ignored the Venice Commission's criticism of Hungary's new constitution last year.
At an EU level, the European Commission started legal action, known as ‘infringement proceedings', on 17 January against Hungary over the judicial appointments, the independence of the central bank, and data-protection regulation. The Hungarian government has until 7 April to provide further clarification or face action in the European Court of Justice.
Radical changes to media regulation and a resulting clampdown on media freedom have also met with harsh criticism from the EU and Council of Europe. The law now provides for a dubious broadcasting tender process, censorship and content regulation. It includes provisions that could force journalists to reveal sources. Journalists have been dismissed from the state broadcaster for failing to toe the party line. Meanwhile, the new Media Council has cut off subsidies to media that are not friendly to the government.
Hungary's leading independent radio station, Klub Radio, was stripped of its broadcasting rights on 20 December by the Media Authority – which oversees the Media Council – through a manipulated tender process. The Media Authority is criticised in a separate Council of Europe report over its lack of transparency, excessive powers and politicised appointment process. Although a Budapest court granted Klub Radio a temporary reprieve on 14 March that allows it to remain on the air for now, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government is trying to silence its critics.
Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for the digital agenda, warned Hungary in February that it should seek advice from the Council of Europe on its media laws and act on any resulting recommendations. Should Hungary fail to take those steps, Kroes said, she will consider asking the Commission to invoke Article 7 of the EU Treaty. Article 7 allows the EU to suspend the voting rights of EU states whose actions create a “clear risk of a serious breach” of the Union's values. The Liberal and Green political groups in the European Parliament have already called for Article 7 to be invoked against Hungary.
Given the developments in Hungary, such action would be warranted. But it would require the support of the EU's Council of Ministers. And while some member states have spoken out about the negative trends in Hungary – notably, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the Council has so far remained silent.
The deteriorating situation in Hungary is a serious test of what weight Europe – and the EU in particular – places on the values of human rights and rule of law in its region. The Hungarian government's defiance will not be countered by words alone. The latest European reports on Hungary provide further evidence, if any were needed, that developments there threaten the very core of the EU's law, common values and principles. It is time for the EU's Council of Ministers to act.
Lydia Gall is the eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch.