Passions ran high in the chamber on Wednesday as several political group leaders raised concerns not only over specific legal and constitutional provisions in Hungary, but also what they saw as a wider undermining of democratic values in that country. Others vigorously opposed this view, warning that such an approach went too far. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told MEPs that straightforward solutions to meet concerns could be found.
The debate in Parliament came one day after the European Commission started infringement procedures against Hungary on three specific laws. The discussion saw highly contrasting views from opposite sides of the House on how to address the situation.
Speaking for the Danish presidency of the Council, Europe Minister Nicolai Wammen said that all EU countries must comply with the treaties. "If there are any doubts the Commission should examine and analyse the situation. That is exactly what the Commission has done." He stressed the need for dialogue with Hungary.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso said further action will depend on the response of the Hungarian institutions to the formal notices about the independence of the national central bank, the judiciary and the data protection supervisory authority, adding, I ask for the respect of democracy in Hungary in the best interest of Hungarians.
The problems raised by the Commission Tuesday in its formal letter can be solved quickly and easily, Orbán said. The measures taken over the past year and a half were necessary because Hungary was on the brink of economic collapse in 2010, he said, while accepting that some measures may have run counter to the interests of businesses and lobbyists. Turning to the new Hungarian constitution, Orban reminded MEPs that no legal concerns had been raised about its articles last year.
EPP leader Joseph Daul noted that Hungary has undertaken many reforms in the past and is emerging from a period of poor economic conditions and severe problems of corruption. Turning to EU laws and principles and whether Hungary is respecting the democratic EU principles of freedom and democracy, he said, "I am sure that Mr Orbán is respecting these principles".
However, Socialist leader Hannes Swoboda said that essential issues, like the independence of judiciary - a breach of European values of democracy - are at stake. "You want to exercise power, stay in power. That is the spirit behind the changes and by your measures you are undermining freedoms you fought so hard for in Hungary"
Different international organizations have raised serious concerns about the new Hungarian constitution, media law, and the central bank, Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt said, there is more at stake than an infringement procedure. The conformity of the Hungarian constitution and cardinal laws should be checked against basic EU values such as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, he said.
In a press release yesterday Orbán said he was going to Strasbourg to "defend Hungarian honour against the European left," Greens leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit said, adding: he should remember that the EU is a house that we are building all together because we are fighting for freedom and democracy here. Orbán should also remember that even if he has the majority, "the minority has the right not to live in fear".
Speaking for the ECR group, Hungarian MEP Lajos Bokros talked about a multiplication of crises in Hungary. He criticised the government's economic policy and said before the new constitution came into force, Orbán's government had modified the old one several times "to avoid scrutiny".
Marie-Christine Vergiat for the GUE/NGL group criticised the new, rushed-through constitution, and the speedy legislative procedure. She expressed concern about respect for European values in Hungary and urged the EU to find a more effective solution.
For the EFD group Zbigniew Ziobro said "we are using the power of the EU to restrict a sovereign state." He praised Orban for having the courage to bring about the changes.