Hungary PM defends constitutional changes

Hungary’s prime minister, under fire for amending his constitution in ways Brussels claims may curb the rule of law, said on Thursday he was forced to overhaul the legal system after the country’s financial collapse five years ago.

Viktor Orbán acknowledged that he had either reformed or replaced Hungary’s entire legal code since becoming prime minister, but insisted the changes complied with European norms. He expressed surprise the EU was again challenging its legality.

“When we started to reshape the country, the first idea in our mind was that the first country to collapse in the EU financially and economically was Hungary, not the Greeks,” Mr Orbán said in a rare appearance before the international press ahead of an EU summit. “The people authorised us not just to reform the country, but more than that; we call it renewal of the country.”

Though Mr Orbán reiterated he was open to discuss EU concerns, he expressed frustration that he was being forced again to justify his legal overhaul just months after a similar process of vetting was completed by the European Commission and European Court of Justice.

“My impression several months ago was basically we are over all the disputes because we closed all of them,” he said. “Somehow, in a strange way, just five days ago the whole discussion erupted again. This is the story how we live.”

Mr Orbán’s rejoinder to criticisms comes as José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Council of Europe – a non-EU body that serves as Europe’s primary human rights watchdog – have begun reviewing the 14 pages of amendments, passed by the Hungarian parliament on Monday.

Critics claim the amendments – which include measures annulling all case law for the country’s constitutional court predating the Orbán-era constitution – are part of a pattern by Mr Orbán to weaken the country’s government and institutions in order to consolidate power in the hands of his ruling Fidesz party.

Mr Barroso and Mr Jagland have expressed disappointment that Mr Orbán pushed forward with the vote without allowing the EU or Council of Europe to vet the provisions beforehand. Mr Orbán said he found the request “absurd”, arguing the vote had been scheduled for weeks before Brussels intervened.

“Sitting in Budapest, the debate on this constitutional amendment had been under way for a month,” Mr Orbán said, shifting between Hungarian and English. “Don’t you think this timing is rather absurd?”

The move by Mr Barroso and Mr Jagland comes amid rising concerns in some northern and western European countries that democratic values are being eroded in a handful of former Communist member states, including Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

“If we take each other to task with regard to fish and finances, we should be able to take each other to task on the fundamental principles of this union,” said one EU diplomat. “That is what makes Europe unique.”

But Mr Orbán said Hungary would not turn to autocracy “if we organise ourselves”, arguing that historically the country only experienced dictatorship during “external occupation”. Though he did not explicitly say that he believed EU intervention was equivalent to Soviet-era control from Moscow, Mr Orbán has in the past compared “European bureaucrats” to Soviet apparatchiks.

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