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Hungary Testing Europe’s Resolve on Rights

Published in: EU Observer

Hungary’s troubling record on rights is putting Europe to the test. How to respond to Budapest’s continued refusal to heed repeated calls for reform following critical assessments by a growing number of expert bodies has turned into a major preoccupation for Europe’s policymakers and parliamentarians.

The European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) are both grappling with this question. PACE cast a key vote on the issue on June 25, with a vote in the European Parliament to follow next week. The detailed, authoritative assessments providing the basis for these deliberations highlight serious concerns about human rights and the rule of law in Hungary, and recommend concrete steps to address them.

One would expect respectable, rights-abiding democracies to take to heart and urgently act on such calls for reform. But Hungary’s response to date has been more akin to the likes of Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan when faced with similar criticism. Instead of seeking to remedy concerns identified, the Hungarian government’s reaction has been to steadfastly reject them as unfounded or based on misunderstanding, or motivated by bias. In deliberations before both parliamentary bodies, Hungarian members of the ruling FIDESZ party – shamefully supported by many fellow conservatives – expended enormous energy and resources to discredit the rapporteurs’ work, and to fend off any concrete consequences.

In the case of PACE, these efforts, at least at first sight, appear to have borne some fruit: the main recommendation at issue, to place Hungary under the assembly’s special monitoring procedure was rejected. The body instead resolved to “closely follow the situation in Hungary and to take stock of the progress achieved in the implementation of this resolution.”

PACE’s failure to make use of the tools available to it was hugely disappointing. But Hungary can hardly chalk it up as a victory. The assembly has made clear its determination to remain seized of the situation. And its factual assessment remains largely unchanged and paints a damning picture of human rights and the rule of law in the country.

In its resolution, the assembly marks its “deep concern about the erosion of democratic checks and balances as a result of the new constitutional framework in Hungary.” It says that the government’s move in March to push through yet another set of highly problematic constitutional changes is “unacceptable and raises questions about the willingness of the current authorities to abide by European standards and norms.” It concludes that developments in Hungary “have raised serious and sustained concerns about the extent to which the country is still complying with [its Council of Europe] obligations.”

So the outcome of the PACE vote should be seen more through the prism of what it says about Europe’s resolve to mount an effective response to rights violations in its midst, than what it says about Hungary.

This aspect comes to play especially when looking at the action – or rather the lack thereof – by European Union institutions over developments in Hungary. Apart from a lot of noise and some sternly worded threats, and a narrow EU court ruling on forced retirement on judges, Hungary has yet to face any real consequences for its abusive record and failure to reform.

Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly called for a more robust response, including  action under article 7 of the EU Treaty, which could lead to suspension of Hungary’s voting rights as an EU member for a serious risk of breaching the EU’s common values. The resolution before the European Parliament asks the president and leaders of the political groups “to assess the opportunity of resorting” to such action should the Hungarian government’s intransigence persist.

It is high time to move from assessments to action, and every time Europe’s institutions waver in the face of Hungary’s aggressive deflection of legitimate criticism is a great source of frustration. The silence to date by Hungary’s fellow EU members has been particularly disheartening, and must urgently change.

There have been some recent hopeful signs: a March letter by the foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, Finland and The Netherlands to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso makes the case for “a new and more effective mechanism to safeguard fundamental values in Member States.” And in June the 27 EU justice and home affairs ministers adopted a statement that, for the first time, recognized that more is needed to ensure rights violations in EU member states are adequately addressed. It called on the commission to come up with “a collaborative and systematic method to tackle these issues.”

Of course, the most important ingredient is political will – there is no excuse for inaction on Hungary while this process of perfecting the EU’s institutional capacity to respond to rights abuses is under way.

In the meantime, no one should be mistaken to think that Hungary is getting a free pass. Its reputation and standing have sustained deep stains. It has made itself a pariah, known increasingly for its problematic record, and for behaving in ways reminiscent of authoritarian Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan – hardly an achievement to be proud of.

That’s a message Hungary’s “friends” could usefully convey to Budapest.

Veronika Szente Goldston is Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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