BRUSSELS – The European Parliament rebuked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government on Wednesday for pushing through changes to the country's constitution and other laws that critics say are threatening the country's democracy.
In a resolution adopted by a 370-249 margin with 82 abstentions, the legislature backed a report that insists Orban, who came into power in 2010, must make sure any breaches of the rights of European Union citizens are dealt with as soon as possible.
The European Parliament's resolution is merely the latest salvo from international critics unhappy with the Hungarian leader, but it apparently struck a nerve. A day earlier, Orban pre-emptively blasted the naysayers, saying they had no right to meddle to such an extent in his nation's internal affairs.
Orban said his Fidesz party would set forth a resolution in Hungary's parliament Thursday in response to the approval of the report in Brussels.
The prime minister said the decision by the European Parliament "is insulting to the Hungarian people, wants to limit our nation's independence, wants to put us under tutelage and endangers the principles of European cooperation."
Hungary's opposition parties blamed the outcome of the EU vote on Orban's actions.
The EU parliament "has declared that Hungary has systematically distanced itself from the EU's basic values," said a statement from a party led by former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai. "Our nation has been sent to the dunce's stool, and for this Viktor Orban's government is responsible."
The Socialist Party, the largest opposition group in Hungary's parliament, said the EU report was not a condemnation of the country as a whole, as Orban has claimed, but of the current government. Still, the Socialists said they would oppose any EU sanctions against Hungary that could hurt its citizens.
The Civic Union Forum, a conservative group that backs Orban's government, called on the members of the European Parliament to "reject discrimination and double standards" against Hungary. The group said any condemnation of Hungary by the European Parliament would strengthen the "anti-EU extremists."
Fidesz and a smaller ally won a two-thirds majority in the 2010 elections, giving them a free hand to adopt a new constitution, which went into force in 2012, and to change laws at will.
Much of the recent international criticism has centered on a fourth amendment passed in February to the Basic Law, as the constitution is now called in Hungary, which added legislation earlier rejected as unconstitutional by the country's highest court. That includes a ban on political campaign ads on commercial TV and radio stations and the possibility to fine or jail homeless people living on the street.
Orban's government has also been taking bold steps to centralize control over many facets of life in Hungary, a country of 10 million, from the arts and the education system to the media and energy prices.
The European Parliament urged the Hungarian government to remove the provisions rejected by the courts from the constitution, reduce the frequent use of cardinal laws — which require a two-thirds majority to modify or repeal — and increase transparency in the appointment of officials in the state-owned media and media regulators. The report also concluded that the institutional changes in Hungary have "resulted in a clear weakening of the system of checks and balances."
Orban has claimed the EU is merely acting in favor of the large European corporations whose profits in Hungary have dwindled in recent years.
Orban's efforts to rescue the economy after Hungary, then under a Socialist-led government, became the first EU country to receive an IMF-led bailout in 2008 have centered on special taxes on mostly foreign-owned companies, such as banks and energy and telecommunications firms, and the nationalization of some $14 billion in assets managed by private pension funds.
"All of our arguments, including those of a political nature, are really about ... the utilities' cut, the bank tax and the taxes which burden the large international companies," Orban said recently on state radio. "This is what the debate between Hungary and Brussels is about. Every other issue, the political and human rights issues are just excuses."
Pablo Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary.