Published March 14, 2013
BRUSSELS – Rejecting criticism from the EU, the United States and human rights groups, Hungary's prime minister insisted Thursday that recent constitutional changes are not threatening democracy and the rule of law in the Eastern European nation.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban said those concerns were wrong and the amendments to Hungary's constitution were in line with European Union treaties.
"As far as I can see, we are talking about political opinions here," he said through a translator. "They cannot replace facts."
"Hungary's democratic institutions are strong enough to defend themselves," he added, speaking ahead of a summit in Brussels of the EU's 27 national leaders.
Critics, however, fear that an amendment approved by Hungarian lawmakers on Monday weakens the country's constitutional court and undermines its democratic checks and balances.
Orban's conservative government holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, which it has used to push through a sweeping overhaul of the country's institutions and its constitution.
"We got a two-thirds majority because people trusted us with the job," Orban said.
Since 2010, Orban has battled often with the EU over attempts to increase his executive control, ranging from limiting the central bank's independence to curbing media freedom. His government has altered some legislation to comply with EU demands, but critics claim the changes were only superficial.
"The changes have undermined media freedom, limited judicial independence, and weakened the power of the constitutional court, which has been a key check on the executive," warned the rights group Human Rights Watch.
The European Commission, the EU's executive body, vowed this week to probe whether Hungary's new laws violate the EU's values.
Many leaders were also critical. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Hungary's constitutional changes are cause for "great concern," especially for minorities.
"Europe is not only about the market and the currency but it is also a community of values that we share — human rights, democracy," said Rutte.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced concern, saying a government with such a strong majority bears a special responsibility to protect minorities.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz urged the bloc's 27 leaders not to allow a member state to slide back on the EU's core principles.
"The European Union is a community of values," he said. "We cannot remain silent if a member state rides roughshod over them."
The amendment enshrines several government policies that had been struck down by the Constitutional Court over the past months. Those include allowing local authorities to fine or jail homeless people, banning political campaign ads on radio and TV, and forcing university students who accept state scholarships to work in Hungary for years after their graduation.
Crucially, the amendment also limits the court's right to review constitutional amendments. That allows any government with a two-thirds majority — such as the one Orban's Fidesz party has with its Christian Democrat allies — to put whatever it wants into the constitution.
AP writer Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed reporting.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz