democracy and the rule of law

The European Union addresses rule of law issues: Hungary is center stage

Interestingly, it was The Irish Times that first got wind of the news that Vivien Reding, European Commission Vice-President responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, will announce a new mechanism to make it easier for the EU to deal with countries whose governments repeatedly abuse its judicial and legal framework and thereby threaten the rule of law in member states of the European Union. It is no secret that one of these countries is Hungary; the other is Romania. In Hungary, the Orbán government threatened the independence of the courts in addition to limiting freedom of expression. In Romania, Victor Ponta wanted to abolish the Constitutional Court altogether.

We knew, at least since José Manuel Barroso’s “state of the union” speech last fall, that the Commission was working on some kind of mechanism that would close the gap between repeated infringement procedures and the invocation of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union. Article 7 states that in case of serious and persistent breach “the Council, acting by a qualified  majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council.” This is the most powerful weapon the EU has in its arsenal, but it has never been invoked because it is considered to be far too harsh. Leaders of the “rogue states” know that they will never face the threat inherent in Article 7. Accordingly, EU officials have pointed out that they either have to break the taboo concerning Article 7 or have to come up with alternative measures. Vivien Reding in the presence of President Barroso and Cecilia Malmström, Commissioner of Home Affairs, announced such an “alternative measure,” a mechanism that would close the gap between the lengthy and most of the time ineffectual infringement proceedings and the draconian but never used Article 7.

At first glance, the measures outlined by Vivien Reding seemed toothless to me. I was especially disappointed when I read about the “dialogue” the Commission will conduct with the government of any rogue member state. I recalled the endless dialogues between Brussels and Viktor Orbán that led nowhere while the Hungarian prime minister danced his peacock dance. But then I discovered a sentence that might give us hope. Reding said that “the Commission, as guardian of the EU treaties, also had to become the guardian of the rule of law in the Union.” They envisage an extension of the Commission’s competence.

The Commission will not deal with individual cases or miscarriages of justice, only with “systemic threats” to EU values. That is, a distinction will be drawn between individual infringements that don’t threaten the fundamental democratic structure of the state and grave, all-embracing changes that affect the entire body politic. As we know, in the last four years the Hungarian government fundamentally changed the whole “system.” In fact, Orbán only a few weeks ago admitted that the system that exists now is fundamentally different from what Hungary had prior to 2010. Indeed. Then Hungary was a democracy. Today it is not.

The photo Napi Gazdaság used for its article on the  Brussels's move against rogue states

The photo used for its article on Brussels’ move against rogue states

How does the European Commission propose to deal with systemic threats to democracy? As a first step, it will collect evidence of “a systemic threat to the rule of law.” If such an assessment is made, “it will initiate a dialogue” by sending a “rule of law opinion” to the government in question. At that point the member state will have an opportunity to respond. In the second stage, “unless the matter has already been resolved, the Commission issues a ‘rule of law recommendation’ to the country concerned.” At this point the country will be given a fixed length of time in which to remedy the situation. These recommendations, unlike the “rule of law opinions,” will be made public. If the issue is not satisfactorily resolved, “the Commission can resort to one of the mechanisms set out in Article 7 of the EU treaty.” Whether this new three-tiered system ends up being as ineffectual as the former procedure remains to be seen.

The Hungarian media is in no hurry to report on this particular bit of news. Only two Internet sites published something on Vivien Reding’s announcement: Index and Both point out that the announcement is the consequence of the European Union’s endless and mostly fruitless struggles with Viktor Orbán’s systemic attack on the rule of law. Index specifically mentions Rui Tavares’s suggestion that the EU establish a new supervisory Copenhagen mechanism assessing member states’ compliance with the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy. As you can see, the Copenhagen suggestion was not included in the proposal. Instead, the Commission itself assumed the role. Whether this is a better solution or not, I cannot determine.

In any case, the European Union made the first move. Of course, it will be many months before the new mechanism is in place, but I think that this time the Commission means business. Reding even announced “the need for an EU Minister for Justice taking the helm at a central level, giving EU justice policy a face and, of course, held accountable to the European parliament.”

Unfortunately, the European Union as it functions today is not a viable entity. Just as the Articles of Confederation turned out to be unworkable and had to be replaced by the Constitution of the United States of America. The European Union should realize that without a stronger framework, it will remain a toothless giant bogged down in intra-state struggles and endless bureaucratic wranglings.

The significance of today’s demonstration in the Hungarian capital

This afternoon’s demonstration was impressive. At least in my opinion. Some people are disappointed that only 6,000 people showed up, but I don’t think that numbers are the most important consideration. Yesterday we didn’t even know who those handful of people were who occupied the courtyard of Fidesz’s party headquarters. A few hours later their numbers swelled to 1,000. Less than 24 hours later this unknown group managed to stage a demonstration in which thousands participated.

And this crowd, both yesterday and today, demanded “Constitution, Democracy and the Rule of Law.” These are exactly the kinds of values that European politicians cherish and that they demand from Viktor Orbán. The crowd was mixed: young, middle-aged, old, all mingled together, and there were a lot of sympathizers cheering them on. It is also significant that 110,000 people watched the live stream of the event.

Most likely Viktor Orbán thinks that because the numbers are still relatively small, eventually the whole movement will peter out. I predict that the trend will be just the reverse. Some of you already sensed a different mood on the streets today. In any case, it seems to me that Fidesz is preparing itself for the possibility, even if to some of them an unlikely possibility, of rising dissatisfaction. The party’s organizers and spin doctors are heading in the wrong direction, however, in devising ways to combat dissatisfaction.

Let’s start by recapping yesterday’s response to the demonstrators at the Fidesz headquarters. First, András Bencsik, one of the Peace March organizers, mobilized those Fidesz supporters who are hard-core “professional” demonstrators. Their primitive behavior, their obscenities, and their stupidity will turn more and more people against them. Videos abound on YouTube of these people’s unspeakable behavior. Moreover, they didn’t even realize that the students on the balcony were reading Fidesz’s party program from 1989.

Then came the second mistake. Gábor Kubatov, Fidesz party manager who in his spare time is the president of the board of the Ferencváros Football Club, called on some heavies from the ranks of the Fradi football hooligans who tried to remove the protesters by force. It turned out that one of the hooligans spent ten years in jail  for murder.

And what is Kubatov planning now? He is trying to mobilize the faithful by painting a picture of the imminent danger facing the government and the party. He sent a letter to party members in which he outlined the “damage” and “physical abuse” allegedly committed by the protesters. According to Kubatov, the demonstrators “attacked” the building, “tried to break into it,” but thanks to the the staff ‘s “firmness of purpose” they were thwarted in their attempt. “Meanwhile they broke into smithereens whatever was in their way” (törtek-zúztak) and “maltreated the employees of the party headquarters.” (Don’t try to find any logic here because if they didn’t manage to get into the building how could they have smashed things into smithereens or maltreated the employees who were inside?)

In the future, Kubatov maintains, the employees of the offices of Fidesz must be ready to defend, peacefully of course, their buildings. He called on Fidesz members who are ready to come to the rescue of Fidesz buildings to sign up at (“Riadó” means “alert” and “lánc” “chain”.) These people should be ready on an hour’s notice to be “on the scene of aggression.”

Some people on the Internet compare Fidesz’s hard core defenders to either the Sturmabteilung (Storm troopers/SA) or the Workers’ Militia of the Kádár regime. The blogger who compares Kubatov’s defense force to the SA quotes the appropriate passages from the Hungarian edition of Wikipedia, which describes the chief function of the SA  as defending the national socialist party’s meetings from attacks by the opposition.

Kubatov’s guards reminded Vastagbőr (Thick Skin) of Kádár’s Workers’ Militia whose duty was “the defense of the socialist achievements of the Hungarian People’s Republic.” Each workplace, including collective farms and offices, had a number of volunteers who were supposed to defend the buildings and the employees inside.

Now let’s see what the pro-Fidesz media is up to. Magyar Nemzet published a detailed article about today’s events. The author of the article called the organizers “members of the Bajnai Guard” but otherwise gave a fairly objective report on the demonstration. Heti Válasz claimed that “several  activists with a loudspeaker surrounded and insulted the camera man and Boglárka Bartus, a reporter for HírTV.” Maybe, maybe not.

And let’s see how Zsolt Bayer sees the situation. Fidesz supporters, however sadly, must realize that from here on there will be first weekly and later daily demonstrations. He calls the members of civic groups “the children of Saul Alinsky,” a well-known American community organizer and writer. What is so bad about following in the footsteps of Alinsky, who after all worked for the improvement of living conditions in poor communities across North America? Only Bayer knows. But he claims that he is “too lazy, too tired, and too skeptical to loathe” Alinsky’s offspring. Perhaps one could talk to them if there was anything to talk about. But there isn’t. “At least we should force ourselves to be patient because they will be coming and coming. First only a few dozen, but always. They will jump over the fence, climb into our headquarters, our houses, our dreams, our desires. We will smell their halitosis. And we will retreat and retreat because we can hardly bear it. And we would gladly trample down all of them. Let’s be honest with ourselves at least once. This is what we would like to do.” But they cannot do it because the other side is waiting for aggression on their part. Don’t fret. After the elections “they will disappear forever, but until then it will be very difficult.”

One final note on the road Fidesz traveled in the last twenty-five years. Once upon a time Viktor Orbán, László Kövér and their friends did exactly the same thing that today’s college students are doing. Protesting injustice, lack of democracy, lack of transparency, lack of dialogue between the rulers and the ruled. In the courtyard of Fidesz party headquarters the students found discarded campaign literature from 1989. They demanded democratic, ideology-free education and university autonomy. And, what I like perhaps best, they demanded “fear-free life.” With Viktor Orbán’s government fear returned.

I don’t think that László Kövér wants to remember his old self squatting on the ground with a poster hanging from his neck:

In a police state the policeman's salary is higher than that of a teacher. In a democratic country the opposite is true

In a police state the policeman’s salary is higher than that of a teacher. In a democratic country the opposite is true.

How would today’s Fidesz faithful greet the man above? Would they threaten to pour acid on his face? Most likely. What’s going on in Hungary today is really shameful.