Public Administration and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics has advised EU Justice and Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding to get her facts right before questioning judicial independence in Hungary, the latest move in a spat over sweeping government reforms.
Reding had said she expected Hungary to abide by a European Court of Justice ruling and reinstate over 200 judges and prosecutors forced out of office when the ruling Fidesz party lowered the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 62. Navracsics fired off a tetchy letter on Monday, two days after Reding’s words were published as an interview in left-wing newspaper Népszava.
The European court ruling does not include any reference to the alleged lack of independence of the Hungarian judiciary, Navracsics wrote. It refers to “difference in treatment on grounds of age”, the justice minister said. This is technically correct: the Commission had challenged the legislation by citing EU laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of age.
Navracsics, who is also one of two deputy prime ministers, did not address the question of the Fourth Amendment to Hungary’s constitution, which was the theme of much of the interview. Reding said the Commission was examining the fourth major overhaul of the Fundamental Law that came into force last year after being pushed through by ruling Fidesz party lawmakers.
No love lost between them
“For the Commission, these are not merely ‘technical’ questions,” Reding said, adding that the same applies to issues of forced retirement and a government move to replace the office of data protection ombudsman (currently the subject of another Commission probe). “An independent judiciary and a strong, independent data protection authority is a central pillar in ensuring the rule of law in any EU member state,” she said.
In an interview with Infórádió later in the day, Navracsics accused her of bias. The Commissioner “expressly and purposely makes anti-Hungarian statements” although an EU Commissioner should not engage in party politics, he said. The right-wing government’s line is that Hungary is under attack from left-wing and liberal elements in Brussels.
Reding made it clear that the Commission is not about to lift the pressure on Hungary to conform to EU norms: “As Commission President [Jose Manuel] Barroso reminded us on 11 March, if necessary we will not hesitate to use the available means – I repeat, all available means – if Hungary fails to abide by EU law and the constitutional norms of the Council of Europe,” she said. “Let me put it very clearly: a constitution is not a toy… it cannot be changed every few months.”
Orbán: EU might punish Hungary
Hungary might not be treated fairly when the EU decides whether to release the country from its nine-year-long excessive-deficit procedure, PM Viktor Orbán told listeners to his weekly radio address last Friday. The country’s “decidedly angry adversaries” can be expected to do all they can to force the government to lift its bank tax and abandon its policy of forcing utilities firms to lower their charges by 10 per cent, he said.