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Editorial

The Hungary debate is about sovereignty, not democracy, says human rights expert

| January 2, 2018

European Parliament hearings on Hungary raise sharp questions about the undefined competencies between the Union and the Member States, according to the head of a leading Hungarian think tank.

The debate is not about democracy or the rule of law but rather about sovereignty, according to Miklós Szánthó, president of the Center for Fundamental Rights. Testifying before the LIBE Committee at a hearing in December, Szánthó said that the heated debate is taking place not only between Brussels and national governments or parliaments but also in the judicial realm, between national constitutional courts – such as the Czech, German and Hungarian courts – and the European Court of Justice. Many questions remain about who is competent to decide on certain clashes between EU law and national constitutions, according to the expert.

Recalling the result of the 2010 parliamentary elections in Hungary, Szánthó pointed out that the current ruling alliance of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats won a two-thirds majority according to the old electoral system that was adopted in 1990 and then again in 2014 under the new rules, giving the ruling parties a constitutional mandate. Many of the European debates about Hungary began in around 2010 and 2011 when the Hungarian Parliament – using its legal authority – adopted a new Fundamental Law and cardinal laws like the media legislation. Despite the criticism, the fact is that in terms of the number of infringement procedures, Hungary usually ranked only in the middle among EU Member States. Based on EU statistics from 2016, out of 1570 ongoing infringement procedures, 57 were initiated against Hungary (3.6 percent of all procedures), which put the country in 13th place.

The first question in his current debate, according to Szánthó, is whether the Hungarian government or parliament possess the sovereign powers to take independently the decisions that they have, or were these clearly the competence of the European Union and its bodies? Not all questions of competency have been defined precisely, supposedly because the Union and its predecessors began as a form of economic cooperation in a time of economic convergence and prosperity among Western European states. When problems arose, like the financial and economic crisis, the declining geopolitical weight of the European Union or the recent migration influx, this has changed. When the EU struggled to provide an effective response to these problems, Member States took their own measures.

Viewed as a debate over sovereignty and authority, one can see that different world views compete. Even rule of law mechanisms remain blurry in EU treaties, added Szánthó. Do EU values limit national constitutional identities, or should EU values yield to national identities? The debate raises challenging questions about the notion of a deeper, federal EU based on multiculturalism versus a Europe based on strong nation states.

A candidate debate, he suggested, about national sovereignty and the real meaning of “European values” would be much more constructive than the current political and technical debate hiding behind a legal mask.