Critics say Hungary’s suspension of controversial administrative courts could be characterised as an attempt to avoid criticism and remain in the EU’s largest centre-right bloc, though it does little to address rule of law concerns.
Hungary has decided to ‘indefinitely suspend’ a controversial new court system in a move to ‘improve Hungary’s position’ in the European Union (EU), according to government officials.
The suspension came just before judges were to be appointed to the administrative courts, whose creation was made into law last December. The new court system would have overseen issues regarding sensitive political topics, with judges appointed by the justice minister.
A government official appointing judges raised concerns about the rule of law in Hungary, which is increasingly seen as the EU’s problem child.
Freedom House, a US-based, pro-democracy watchdog, said in its 2019 country report for Hungary, which it labels as ‘partly free’, that the courts prompted “concerns that it could be filled with judges sympathetic to the ruling party”.
The Venice Commission, the European Commission’s advisory body, said in March that the new system would allow the justice minister to exercise significant powers over the judicial system without necessary checks and balances.
The halting of the courts came as a “huge surprise”, according to Matyas Bencze, a Hungarian law professor who also works at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Center for Social Sciences Institute for Legal Studies.
“As a response to the criticisms [the government] continuously stated … that there were not any major political and legal problems with their plan. They acknowledged that only a few, minor (not systemic) problems occurred which they had already fixed”, Bencze said in an interview.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban has stated his intention to create an ‘illiberal democracy’ within the EU.
His far-right Fidesz party has led campaigns against migration and painted Hungarian-American financier George Soros, who champions liberal causes across the globe and spoken out against migration.
The government even paid for billboards across Hungary that alleged Soros was working with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to encourage migration ahead of May European Parliament (EP) elections.
Juncker is also a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right bloc in the EP, of which Fidesz was a member until its suspension in March.
After the suspension, Fidesz cosied to the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations, a far-right, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic bloc headed by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
However, the EPP remains the largest bloc in the EP and it appears Fidesz wants to remain in the fold, according to Zselyke Csaky, Research Director for Europe and Eurasia for Freedom House.
She said in an interview the suspension “shows Orban miscalculated when it comes to the results of the European Parliament elections. He wants his party to stay in the EPP and was willing to sacrifice this issue for the time being”.
While Csaky said the suspension is “a rare occasion for celebration”, she added: “[The] fact that the government postponed an in-depth legal overhaul on a whim, based on political calculations, demonstrates its completely voluntaristic approach to the rule of law.”
Aside from the administrative court system, the Hungarian government has received further criticism for enacting laws that disadvantage minority groups and limit media freedom.
Furthermore, the suspension of the courts does not ensure they won’t be enacted at a later date, although the government has signaled it was willing to scrap them entirely.
“It's unclear whether the move will be enough to appease Fidesz's fellow member parties in the EPP, but what is clear is that it's a tactical retreat and not a meaningful shift,” Csaky concluded.
The European Commission and EPP did not respond to requests for comment on the suspension of the administrative courts.
While the move was meant to “improve Hungary’s position”, it had nothing to do with keeping Fidesz in the EPP, Orban’s Chief of Staff Gergely Gulyas said at a press conference last week.
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government replied: “While the Hungarian government takes the view that the legislation passed fully conforms to European standards and the requirements of the rule of law, the introduction of administrative courts remains in the crossfire of fierce international debates which call the independence of the judiciary into question, even if this is wholly unjustified in the cabinet’s opinion.”
The far-right Polish ruling Law and Justice Party, which often aligns itself with Fidesz, has faced ire from the EU over changes to its court system, including sweeping changes to its Supreme Court and reforms that give politicians powers over the judiciary.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued an injunction last October to stop Poland from purging Supreme Court Justices who were not friendly to the ruling party.
Poland has recently enacted changes to these reforms that have been characterised as a softening meant to calm watchdogs and the EU.
There have been calls in Brussels to hand the issue over to the ECJ, which has the power to roll back the reforms.
“Until these debates are concluded to everyone’s satisfaction, we propose the deferral of the introduction of the system,'' the spokesperson concluded.