President János Áder’s visit to Berlin and the “stormy meetings” with German politicians

MTI, the Hungarian news agency, by now completely under the thumb of the Orbán government, makes sure that Hungarians get mighty little foreign news about their country. A good example is MTI’s coverage of President János Áder’s visit to Berlin. The news agency filed four reports on Áder’s visits to Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Chancellor Angela Merkel. All four are basically descriptions of what Áder himself told MTI’s reporter with the exception of one sentence that was based on information received from the spokesman of the German foreign ministry.

According to MTI’s story, Áder talked about the excellent German-Hungarian economic relations and as an afterthought mentioned that Angela Merkel would like to see more “legal security.” As far as his conversation with Guido Westerwelle was concerned, Áder concentrated on his efforts to explain to the German foreign minister that the latter’s knowledge of the Hungarian constitution and its amendments are wanting. He tried “to fill this hiatus.” When a newspaperman asked him about possible friction between the two countries due to the controversy over the latest changes introduced into the Hungarian constitution, Áder minimized the differences between Westerwelle and himself. Differences of opinion are natural. For example, Germany is against the entry of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen Area while Hungary supports it. Of course, this is not what the reporter was interested in.

Angela Merkel with János Áder in Berlin /

Angela Merkel with János Áder in Berlin /

So, what was the sole sentence uttered by the spokesman of the German foreign ministry that MTI found important enough to include in its report? The topics discussed included the Hungarian constitution. The discussion was frank (nyílt) and during the discussion “rather contradictory” (meglehetősen ellentmondó) opinions were expressed. Here we have to stop a bit because the Hungarian version doesn’t make a lot of sense. Népszabadság, which used the MTI report, didn’t know what it could possibly mean and tried to improve on it by calling it “meglehetősen ellentmondásos.” But the original German is a great deal stronger and straightforward: “it was an open and in parts quite adversarial meeting” (gab es einen offenen und in Teilen durchaus kontroversen Meinungsaustausch). All in all, the true nature of this meeting couldn’t possibly be grasped by someone who has to rely on the news as it is presented to all newspapers via MTI.

So, let’s see what other news agencies made of the story. According to Reuters, Áder’s meeting with Westerwelle was “stormy.” The foreign minister “could not hide his concern at the way Orban and his government were operating.” However, the article in Reuter’s continues, there may be frustration and denunciation, but “there is little the European Union can do with any alacrity and immediacy that might make the mercurial Orban sit up and listen.” The reporter outlines the various possibilities open to the European Commission. It can launch an infringement proceeding, but that might take as long as a year. Moreover, “to prove that they’ve breached a law is very difficult.”

Here we may turn to an article that appeared in Népszabadság after the reporter, Károly Lencsés, had a chance to talk to some Hungarian experts on international law. They think that Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty might be a good point of departure. So, let’s see what this Article 2 is all about:

Article 2 TFEU
1. When the Treaties confer on the Union exclusive competence in a specific area, only the Union may legislate and adopt legally binding acts, the Member States being able to do so themselves only if so empowered by the Union or for the implementation of Union acts.

2. When the Treaties confer on the Union a competence shared with the Member States in a specific area, the Union and the Member States may legislate and adopt legally binding acts in that area. The Member States shall exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has not exercised its competence. The Member States shall again exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has decided to cease exercising its competence.

3. The Member States shall coordinate their economic and employment policies within arrangements as determined by this Treaty, which the Union shall have competence to provide.
4. The Union shall have competence, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty on European Union, to define and implement a common foreign and security policy, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy.

5. In certain areas and under the conditions laid down in the Treaties, the Union shall have competence to carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States, without thereby superseding their competence in these areas.
Legally binding acts of the Union adopted on the basis of the provisions of the Treaties relating to these areas shall not entail harmonisation of Member States’ laws or regulations.

6. The scope of and arrangements for exercising the Union’s competences shall be determined by the provisions of the Treaties relating to each area.

There is also a lot of talk about the famous Article 7 that could under special circumstances suspend certain rights, including voting rights in case of a breach of Article 2. However, almost everybody agrees that such an outcome in Hungary’s case is highly unlikely. Here is the text of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty:

1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.

2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.

3. Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, 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. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.

The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.

4. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.

5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

No wonder that the headline of the Reuter’s article is “EU sweats over how to bring Hungary into line.” This point is also addressed by Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of politics at Princeton University in his latest article in The Guardian. In his opinion the EU should create an institution that would systematically monitor democracy and the rule of law in all member states. Since there is something on the books called “Copenhagen criteria,” which are the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union, this new EU watchdog could be called the “Copenhagen Commission.” An excellent idea. I hope the European Union will listen.