Hungary: To safeguard democracy, Europe must use Article 7
BENJAMIN ABTANIt is now a fact: Hungary is no longer a democracy.
President János Áder has just signed the implementation decrees for new constitutional reforms that wipe out what was left of opposition forces against the government.
More particularly, the Constitutional Court is no longer allowed to give its opinion about the content of laws and to refer to its own case law – which results in the loss of almost all monitoring power on the legislature and the executive.
This meticulous destruction of democracy and its values – whose starting point was the tidal-wave election of Fidesz in 2010 – has taken place for months and months under everybody’s eyes.
The attack was clear and continuous: crippling restriction of the freedom of the press, political tutelage of the Central Bank, inclusion in the Constitution of Christian religious references and of the “social utility” of individuals as a necessary condition for the enforcement of social rights, deletion of the word “republic” in the same Constitution to define the country’s political system, condemnation of homosexuality, criminalization of the homeless, attacks against women’s rights, impunity afforded to perpetrators of racist murders, strengthening of a virulent anti-Semitism…
Only a few days ago, Orban officially decorated three extreme right-wing leading figures: journalist Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for his diatribes against the Jews and the Romani people, whom he compares to “monkeys”; anti-Semitic archaeologist Kornel Bakav, who blames the Jews for having organized the slave trade in the Middle Ages; finally, “artist” Petras Janos, who proudly claims his proximity to the Jobbik and its paramilitary militia, responsible for several racist murders of Romani people and heiress of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, which organized the extermination of Jews and Gypsies during World War II.
This political degradation gives us a gruesome history and political lesson. Throughout the 20th century, representative democracy suffered the attacks of the two major totalitarian systems of the century – Nazism and Communism. Nowadays, in the 21st century, it is under the blows of an anti-European, nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic populism that democracy has fallen, at the heart of Europe, amidst the indifference of the European Union and of too many of its citizens and leaders.
Obsessed by the economic and financial issues, too indifferent to its fundamental values of freedom, equality, peace and justice, the EU has abandoned the fight to promote or even maintain democracy as the political system of its member states.
Unlike Putin’s Russia, for example, Hungary does not have instruments of power, and realpolitik cannot be invoked as a reason for this desertion. Since Hungary is strongly dependent on European subsidies and assistance, and since the EU has ominously shown in Greece how its financial support could be politicized to the extreme, a supposed lack of room for maneuver of the EU cannot be invoked either.
The fundamental reason for this desertion of Europe is unfortunately as simple as it is worrying: It is a lack of commitment of the citizens and European leaders toward representative democracy as a political system.
This is the reason why, since his re-election in 2010, Orbán has received the unfailing support of many European leaders, notably from his own political family; this is also why the European Commission does not use any of the instruments available – though it does have many – to enforce the EU’s fundamental values.
For example, the European Commission, the Parliament and the European Council, where the states are represented, can act in concert to pursue actions under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 in order to avoid any backward step on democracy for any EU member state. Article 7 intends to suspend the voting rights of a country within the Council in case of a “potential violation of common values.”
In Hungary, however, the stage of risk was overstepped a long time ago. Actions under Article 7 should therefore be urgently taken, as a first step towards a strong EU commitment to defend democracy and its values.
Similarly, the European civil society must continue to commit itself strongly to support Hungarian democrats who bravely fight within the country itself.
If the EU and the civil society were not to commit themselves with the determination required by the gravity of the situation, we would be doomed to witness its rapid decay, in Hungary and soon elsewhere, if the European commitment turned out to be insufficient.
Let there be no mistake: What is at stake here is the nature of the European project and the ability of Europe to preserve our common and most precious commodity: democracy. For several decades, the choice between barbarism and democracy has never been so obvious.
Resolutely, we have to choose Europe and democracy.
Benjamin Abtan is president of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).