EU threatens legal action over controversial reforms in Hungary

Member of the Hungarian Parliament and the Hungarian right-wing 'Jobbik' party, Elod Novak, right, sets an European Union flag on fire during a demonstration in Budapest on January 14, 2012.

Story highlights

  • The European Commission president says he wants to see EU law fully respected
  • President Barroso and Prime Minister Orban are to meet in Brussels next week
  • The EU and the IMF have threatened to withhold aid over the matter
  • The opposition and rights groups have criticized the country's new constitution
The European Commission warned Hungary Tuesday it faces legal action over controversial reforms introduced by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the move reflects its determination to see that EU law is fully respected.
"We hoped that the Hungarian authorities would make the changes necessary to guarantee respect of EU law," he said in a statement. "This has not been the case so far, therefore we have decided to begin infringement proceedings."
The actions concerns three issues, he said: the independence of the national central bank, the retirement age of judges, and the independence of the country's data protection authority. The commission is also seeking more information in regard to the independence of the judiciary, Barroso said.
Both the European Union and International Monetary Fund have said they will refuse to extend aid to Hungary, which is struggling financially, unless the government in Budapest guarantees the independence of the central bank.
EU threatens Hungary over new laws
EU threatens Hungary over new laws

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EU threatens Hungary over new laws 02:47
Hungary's bailout quest
Hungary's bailout quest

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Hungary under pressure from Europe
Hungary under pressure from Europe

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European Commission warns Hungary
European Commission warns Hungary

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The organizations say they are concerned the Hungarian government will have undue influence over monetary policy.
Orban is to meet Barroso in Brussels, Belgium, for talks next Tuesday, the latter said in his statement.
"Hungary is a key member of the European family," Barroso said. "We do not want the shadow of doubt on respect for democratic principles and values to remain over the country any longer. The quicker that this is resolved, the better."
Infringement proceedings are a step preceding legal action, intended to enable a state to make changes to conform with EU law rather than be taken to court.
Barroso wrote to Orban in December requesting the withdrawal of two recent bills related to the country's financial stability and the central bank. Orban rejected the requests.
The EU then raised the prospect of taking Hungary to the European Court of Justice, Europe's highest court, over Orban's constitutional overhaul.
The string of constitutional changes introduced by Orban's center-right government have generated much controversy within Hungary, where his party, Fidesz, has a dominant position in Parliament.
Tens of thousands of people protested against the new constitution in Budapest earlier this month, demanding that Orban resign.
The demonstration, which lasted nearly five hours, was organized by opposition parties and civil society groups who say the new constitution is anti-democratic.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed similar concerns last year, pushing Orban to commit to "the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency."
The government has defended itself and blamed opposition parties for bringing the country to the brink of economic and political collapse. It says it is trying to resolve a problem spawned by the previous Socialist government.
The new constitution, which took effect January 1, omits "republic" from Hungary's official name, and includes several paragraphs that Amnesty International says violate international human rights.
The human rights organization has been critical of sections that define life as beginning at conception and marriage as being between a man and a woman.
It also expressed concerns about the possibility of life imprisonment without parole, and the failure to forbid discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
The demonstration earlier this month was preceded by a series of protests in 2011 against laws introduced by Hungary's populist government.
Critics have said that a new media law is restrictive and that a new electoral law favors Orban's party.
They have also taken aim at a law criminalizing homelessness.