Why is the European Commission Afraid of Hungary?

by ALEX ALEXIEV March 12, 2012
As Europe struggles inconclusively to stem the fiscal implosion that threatens the Euro and perhaps the European Union itself, another, largely unnoticed and seemingly peripheral, conflict may provide as much if not more insight into the systemic weaknesses of the once-promising European project.
Technically, at issue is a quarrel between the European Commission (EC) and the government of Hungary over some obscure laws on judges’ retirement ages, ombudsman roles and whether or not Central Bankers ought to swear an oath to the constitution of the state they serve. In reality, the conflict is over fundamental issues such as who decides what European values are, from whence does democratic legitimacy derive in the EU and should a democratically-elected national legislature or the European bureaucracy ultimately decide what legislation is legitimate and what’s not.
The conflict came to a head after the EC instituted “accelerated infringement procedures” against Hungary for ostensible violations of the three recently legislated issues above and threatened to take the government to the European Court of Justice after the government handed in their response to the charges last month. In essence, the EC claimed that imposing a mandatory retirement age of 62 on judges is discriminatory, asking the Central Bank governor to swear an oath to the national constitution a violation of EU norms, and diluting the power of the ombudsman’s institution undemocratic. The Hungarians responded that the retirement age for all civil servants has always been 62, though judges were allowed to serve until 70 without having to ask permission. As a result, they say 80% of the some 300 judges draw both salary and pension, a practice the government wants to curtail by eliminating the automatic extension of the retirement age. In the case of the oath to the constitution by the Central Bank governor, the government sees it as legitimate since a separate clause in the constitution guarantees the independence of the bank, while on the issue of the data-protection, the ombudsman expressed his willingness to compromise.
Behind these at first sight inconsequential charges and counter-charges, however, lies a much greater ideological divide which explains why the conflict has become so heated. Some background is essential for understanding this.
Prior to the current conservative Fidesz government under Victor Orban coming to power in a landslide in April 2010, Hungary was ruled for years by the ex-communist Hungarian Socialist Party (MZMP) under Ferenc Gyurcsani, a former communist official, said to have become one of Hungary’s wealthiest individuals through his party connections. As a prime-minister, Gyurcsani admitted to have lied about the country’s budget deficit in order to get elected and also stacked the 3-person Monetary Council with four other supporters to control the Central Bank. His policies, which according to Transparency International were also marked by corruption, coupled with the world economic crisis beginning in 2008, led to an economic implosion and the Hungarian voters swept the socialists from office and installed Orban’s Fidesz party in power with an unprecedented two-thirds majority.
Once in power and faced with a huge economic crisis, Fidesz made no secret of its intentions to rapidly and fundamentally reform Hungary in a conservative, free-market direction, partly in response to the demand for deep, structural reforms by the IMF. Among other things, it cut the bloated upper bureaucratic apparatus by half and reduced public sector salaries and pensions by more than 10% resulting in savings equal to 1% of GDP. It reformed welfare, media and labor laws and cut income and corporate taxes. Most importantly, it undertook to write a new constitution to reflect the post-communist reality of the country. While immediately after the collapse of the communist regime, a new interim constitution was installed, many of the vestiges and practices of the old totalitarian constitution had remained in use, making a decisive break with the communist past difficult.
It is true that in the haste to reform the system, the government made mistakes and overreached at times, such as refusing to re-license an opposition radio station or in the ombudsman legislation and similar cases. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that Fidesz at any time acted unconstitutionally or used non-democratic means to pass legislation, as confirmed by the extremely weak evidence presented by the EC, as cited above.
This did not help it from becoming the target of a hysterical smear campaign by the European Left, and its acolytes in the media and the EU, as the epitome of the evil of rightwing politics, ultimately culminating in the political persecution of Budapest by the EC, currently on display. As if to confirm that the EC’s zeal in persecuting Budapest had little to do with its imagined misdeeds, it has now threatened to withhold payment of $650 million due to Hungary’s poorer regions because of its ostensible budget deficit. Yet, it just so happens that Hungary is one of the few EU countries whose deficit is just about at the EU norm of 3%, while most other members considerably exceed it without the EC noticing it, let alone threatening sanctions. 
It is an irony worth noting, that the democratically-elected government of Hungary is being judged by the unelected EC bureaucratic mandarins, who among other recent deeds, denied a democratic referendum to the Greeks and forced on them and the Italians unelected governments, to say nothing of imposing on the Europeans thousands of rules and regulations on which no one has been allowed to vote.
The real viciousness of this conflict, however, goes clearly beyond economic policy and political reform and cannot be explained except by realizing that what the Hungarians have done is to commit the mortal sin of challenging the prevailing political culture of the European Union establishment today and thus the very legitimacy of its leftist, multi-cultural Weltanschaung. Much more unacceptable than Fidesz’s economic policies, to its adversaries, are its political philosophy as exemplified by the new constitution’s insistence that Hungary is a Christian nation and proud of it, that marriage is between a man and a woman and that life begins at conception. Commonsense propositions to most Europeans as these are, they make the politically correct EU elites go truly unhinged.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Alex Alexievis a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C.  He tweets on national security and politics at twitter.com/alexieff.

Alex Alexiev is IASC's Senior Fellow for Eurasia Affairs.  He has more than 35 years of analytical experience in U.S. national security as a senior analyst and project director with the Rand Corp's National Security Division, and several think tanks in Washington D.C.  He has directed numerous research projects for the Department of Defense, Office of Net Assessment, U.S. Army Intelligence, USAF intelligence, DIA, CIA, and other U.S. Government agencies, and has testified before Congress numerous times. He is the author of several books and myriad monographs and articles on national security issues.


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