The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, met Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Budapest on Wednesday to restate concerns about judicial independence and freedom of religion.
The visit came two days after the organisation’s constitutional watchdog, the Venice Commission, published a damning report on legislative changes in Hungary. It found serious problems with reforms to the judiciary and laws on the official recognition of churches enacted by Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz-Christian Democrat alliance.
Jagland also spoke to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Administration and Justice Tibor Navracsics and Minister of Foreign Affairs János Martonyi.
The gravest doubts expressed by the authors of the 30-page report relate to judicial reforms, notably the creation of
‘More needs to be done’: CoE
the post of president of the National Judicial Office (OBH). “In no other member state of the Council of Europe such important powers, including the power to select judges and senior office holders, are vested in a single person,” the report said.
This is no mean comparison, given that the Council of Europe – not to be confused with any organ of the European Union – has several members that are hardly renowned for judicial independence, such as Russia and Turkey.
The Venice Commission’s delegation was invited at the behest of a government sensitive to similar concerns in Brussels over its domestic lawmaking, and compiled its report after interviewing high-ranking officials.
Worries over judiciary
Among them was Tünde Handó, the OBH president, whose powers allow her to reassign cases to judges and courts of her choosing.
Critics have expressed concern that Handó is wife of Fidesz founder member and MEP József Szájer, one of the key figures in the government-appointed committee that drafted Hungary’s new Constitution.
After meeting Jagland, Navracsics said the government had recently tabled amendments to its laws on the judiciary that “answer the overwhelming part of the Venice Commission’s observations”. He told reporters that there are “one or two points in which the cabinet is sticking to its standpoint”, state news agency MTI reported.
This included “guiding principles” of judicial practice that have existed in Hungary “since 1881”, Navracsics said. “We are confident that we can prove to the Venice Commission that what we have here are not steps against independence,” he said.
Defending on may fronts
Besides the Council of Europe, Hungary is under pressure from the European Union, whose executive launched infringement proceedings in January amid fears of an erosion of judicial independence in a member state. The EU also believes that legislation relating to a new data-protection authority that replaced an incumbent ombudsman, and reforms affecting the working of the central bank may run counter to EU law.
The Venice Commission has been busy with Hungary for over a year now. In February 2011 it issued a highly critical report into the government’s new media laws, which have been amended under pressure from the EU then ruled in part unconstitutional by Hungary’s highest court. Navracsics told Jagland that the government has asked the court to recommend amendments that would bring the law in line with Hungary’s basic law.
Jagland described his talks with Orbán and his ministers with the standard diplomatic adjective: “constructive”. He acknowledged the government’s move to amend legislation on its judicial reform, which will be reviewed when proposals have been drafted.
The secretary general of the 47-nation bloc – established in 1949 with a view to fostering common standards in human rights, democracy and justice – said its dialogue with Budapest will continue. “More needs to be done,” Jagland said.