MEPs voice concerns over constitutional changes in Hungary 

From left to right, top to bottom: Viviane Reding, Lucinda Creighton, Frank Engel, Hannes Swoboda, Guy Verhofstadt, Rebecca Harms, Lajos Bokros, Zbigniew Ziobro and Marie-Christine Vergiat  

Many MEPs raised concerns over whether recent changes to the Hungarian constitution were compatible with EU law, during a debate in plenary on Wednesday. However, others called this a "sterile" debate, adding that other EU countries' laws should be scrutinised too. The European Parliament's civil liberties committee is checking whether the changes to the Hungarian constitution respect EU law.

Lucinda Creighton, the Irish minister for European affairs, said on behalf of member states that there have been no discussions in the Council on the situation in Hungary and pointed out that it is for the European Commission, as guardian of the treaties, to check whether national laws are compatible with EU ones.

Commission vice-President Viviane Reding pointed out three main issues of concern in the fourth amendment to the Hungarian constitution: a clause which "would introduce an ad hoc tax on Hungarian citizens should Hungary be fined for a breach of EU law"; the transfer of cases from one court to another [by the president of the National Office for the Judiciary] and restrictions on the publication of political advertisements during election campaigns. She said: "The Commission's legal analysis is progressing  in an objective, non-partisan and fair manner. we will not wait until June before we come out with an infringement procedure if necessary."

Frank Engel, a Luxembourg member of the EPP group, said:  "The Hungarian government has good arguments to support the claim that it is doing good, and the opposition also has good arguments to the contrary. This is another sterile debate." He added: "We cannot question decisions purely because they were carried by a two-thirds majority."

However,  Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian leader of the S&D group, disagreed: "In a state that respects the rule of law, it is not acceptable to restrict rights and penalise citizens." He also criticised the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Hungary.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian leader of the ALDE group, called for steps under Article 7 of the EU treaty which authorises sanctions, including suspending voting rights, against a member state found to be in serious breach of EU values. "If the Commission is not going to do it, we in the Parliament should have the courage to do so," he said.

Rebecca Harms, the German co-chair of the Green group, said: "We are not just meddling in domestic issues because the rule of law and civil rights are at the heart of the European project. If these remain empty words, we are giving up on the essence of the EU project."

Lajos Bokros, a Hungarian member of the ECR group, said:  "Orbán keeps saying that the west is in decay and he turns to the authoritarian east instead. He is constructing himself an authoritarian regime."

"Let's not be hypocritical and let's not use Hungary as a whipping boy," said Zbigniew Ziobro, a Polish member of the EFD group. He proposed to "see if EU values and principles are being breached in other countries as well".

Marie-Christine Vergiat, a French member of the GUE/NGL group, said: "The Hungarian Constitution has been revised for the fourth time in 15 months, which is a lot for a basic law."  She added Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán was running after the extreme right vote to ensure re-election.