People’s basic rights are at risk in Hungary. We must defend the fundamental principles of Europe

The European Union is nothing if it is not based on the strong, shared values which make us European – values such as democracy, solidarity, respect for our fundamental rights, and the rule of law.

That is why any country which applies to join the EU must first meet the so-called ‘Copenhagen Criteria.’ Croatia, likely to be the latest country to join the Union, has invested huge amounts of time, work and resources into this, by reforming its institutions, laws and economy. The progress it has made so far is no small achievement – yet even still, reforms will continue right up to joining day.

So it is worrying when a country which is already inside the European Union appears to waver over these fundamental principles. In December, Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Civil Liberties, was forced to write to the Hungarian government to express concerns about its reforms of the Hungarian legal system. With the new rules, the Government will force nearly 300 judges to retire, weaken the independence of the country’s courts, and remove the serving President of Hungarian Supreme Court before the end of his term of office.

This is only the latest in a string of extremely disquieting measures taken by the Hungarian state. The current Data Protection Officer is to be removed and his office reorganised, giving the government greater control. The independence of the country’s central bank is at risk with moves giving the government powers over its board. The new constitution bans gay marriage and revokes the recognised status of several religions, and the rights of trade unionists have been restricted. Last year, a new law took away many media freedoms, and a major national radio station has had its broadcasting licence revoked – and as if that were not enough, a new law attempts to criminalise the main opposition party in Hungary. There is a growing catalogue of other complaints.

Yesterday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán faced MEPs in the European Parliament. Unsurprisingly, he was unapologetic. Whilst he offered to co-operate with the Commission on complying with the law, he insisted Hungary’s transformation was based on a “renewal of European principles and values.” The leader of the centre-right EPP group, to which Orbán’s party belongs, did little to hold Orbán to account, offering only the excuse that Hungary had been in a “poor state” when Orbán came to power.

Yet as many MEPs pointed out, including the new Socialist Group leader Hannes Swoboda, the reforms being made by Orbán’s government seem to serve the interests of his government – in particular helping it to stay in power – much more than the interests of the Hungarian people. And as Hannes pointed out, Croatia would certainly not have been allowed into the European Union with an Orbán-style government.

This is all not only worrying, but could be dangerous for people across the EU. One of the European Union’s towering achievements over more than 50 years has been the peace and stability that it has brought us, by guaranteeing both the rule of law and the basic rights of all citizens. In the UK, just like other Europeans, we know only too well from history that economic and social crisis can lead to authoritarianism and instability if left unchecked. That puts people’s lives and livelihoods at risk.

The European Commission has now started legal action against the Hungarian Government to uphold EU law and protect the rights of Hungarians, and the government has promised change. But we must all now ensure that not only is the law upheld, but also that the fundamental principles of Europe are defended. We ignore what is happening in Hungary at our peril.

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  1. Kal says:

    It seems to be a serious problem, that defending of fundamental laws is very difficult. As you wrote, the European Commission has now started legal action against the Hungarian Government to uphold EU law and protect the rights of Hungarians, but the other EU countries do not provide all of these fundamental rights either. For e.g. the legal possibility of same sex marriage is rare in other EU countries legal system as well.

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