Hungary PM Orban fights back in European Parliament

 

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban: ''We are talking about European principles and values''

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Hungary's PM Viktor Orban has told a sceptical European Parliament that his government's legal dispute with the EU can be resolved swiftly.

He was speaking a day after the EU Commission launched legal proceedings.

Hungary's government plans to review its new laws on the central bank, the judiciary and data protection authority in light of the Commission's concerns.

The Commission says new Hungarian laws that took effect this month have put those bodies' independence at risk.

Left-of-centre MEPs have sharply criticised Hungary's prime minister, a conservative.

In a short speech to the Strasbourg parliament, Mr Orban said he was engaged in "restructuring of enormous scope and importance" in Hungary and "it is understandable there are debates about that".

He said that in a letter to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso "I said the problems could swiftly be resolved".

Analysis

Mr Orban did his best to play down the dispute with the European Commission, arguing that its objections related to technical points not Hungary's controversial new constitution.

But Mr Barroso said there were bigger political issues beyond the points already raised - and the Commission wouldn't hesitate to take further action if appropriate.

Mr Orban insisted his government had been forced to make changes because Hungarian institutions had been "on the brink of collapse" when his party came to power in 2010.

He came under fire from the parliament's left-wing and centrist groups.

Guy Verhofstadt urged the parliament to vote next month to suspend Hungary's voting rights in the Council of Ministers.

But the Hungarian leader was supported by right-of-centre groups and Polish members, who said complaints about Hungary were "exaggerated".

Hungary cannot afford to lose EU backing when it's trying to negotiate an IMF aid package. The head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, has made it clear that aid will be dependent on Hungary complying with EU conditions.

He said his government had embarked on wholesale reform of Hungary's public services and "we're talking about renewal of Hungary, European principles and values".

Mr Orban's Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in parliament, giving it more power than previous Hungarian governments have had since the collapse of communism in 1989.

Deadline for changes

Mr Orban has been given a month to make changes to the controversial laws. Failure to do so would be grounds for the Commission to levy fines or take Hungary to the European Court of Justice.

Mr Barroso said he had received a letter from Mr Orban on Wednesday in which "he has indicated to me his intention to modify the relevant legislation".

However, he added: "Beyond the legal aspects, some concerns have been expressed regarding the quality of democracy in Hungary, its political culture, the relations between government and opposition and between the state and the civil society."

The head of the parliament's Liberal group, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, said the dispute with Hungary was not just a technical matter.

"It's about checking the conformity of the constitution and cardinal laws with European values."

He praised Mr Orban for his role in defeating communism, but told him: "I'm afraid you are on the wrong path for the moment."

The Franco-German co-leader of the Greens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, told Mr Orban that many Hungarians, including Jews and other minorities, were afraid because of Fidesz policies. "The majority has the right not to live in fear," he said.

A year ago, Mr Orban was given a rough ride by MEPs opposed to his new media law, which was also seen as authoritarian. The law was criticised at the time by the EU Commission, and the Hungarian government later amended it.

Hungary is struggling to service its debts and wants to reach a new deal with the EU and International Monetary Fund on a standby loan worth up to 20bn euros (£16.5bn; $25bn).

The Commission has warned that negotiations on the loan will not resume until Hungary amends its law on the central bank.

 

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