Hungary is no longer a democracy

Europe has been slow to act, but it is not too late.

It is now a fact: Hungary is no longer a democracy.

President János Áder has just signed the implementation decrees for new constitutional reforms that wipe out what was left of opposition forces against the government.

More particularly, the Constitutional Court is no longer allowed to give its opinion about the content of laws and to refer to its own case-law – which results in the loss of almost all monitoring power on the legislature and the executive.

This meticulous destruction of democracy and its values – whose starting point was the landslide election of Fidesz in 2010 – has taken place over months and months, under everybody's eyes.

The attack was clear and continuous: crippling restriction of the freedom of the press, political direction of the Central Bank, inclusion in the Constitution of Christian religious references and of the "social utility" of individuals as a necessary condition for the enforcement of social rights, deletion of the word "Republic" in the same Constitution to define the country's political system, condemnation of homosexuality, criminalisation of the homeless, attacks against women's rights, impunity afforded to perpetrators of racist murders, the strengthening of a virulent anti-Semitism . . .

Only a few days ago, prime minister Viktor Orban officially decorated three extreme right-wing leading figures: journalist Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for his diatribes against the Jews and the Roma people, who he compares to "monkeys"; anti-Semitic archaeologist Kornel Bakav, who blames the Jews for having organized the slave trade in the Middle-Age; finally, "artist" Petras Janos, who proudly claims his proximity to the Jobbik and its paramilitary militia, responsible for several racist murders of Romani people and heiress of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, that organised the extermination of Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War.

This political degradation gives us a gruesome historical and political lesson. Throughout the twentieth century, representative democracy suffered the attacks of the two major totalitarian systems of the century – Nazism and Communism. Nowadays, in the twenty-first century, it is under the blows of an anti-European, nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic populism that democracy has fallen, at the heart of Europe, amidst the indifference of the European Union and of too many of its citizens and leaders.

Obsessed by economic and financial issues, too indifferent to its fundamental values ​​of freedom, equality, peace and justice, the EU has abandoned the fight to promote or even maintain democracy as the political system of its member states.

Unlike Putin's Russia, for example, Hungary is not a world power, and realpolitik cannot be invoked as a reason for this desertion. Since Hungary is strongly dependent on European subsidies and assistance, and since the EU has ominously shown in Greece how its financial support can be politicised to the extreme, its supposed lack of room for manoeuvre cannot be invoked either.

The fundamental reason is unfortunately as simple as it is worrying: it is a lack of commitment of the citizens and European leaders towards representative democracy as a political system.

This is why, since his re-election in 2010, Orban has received the unfailing support of many European leaders, notably from his own political family; this is also why the European Commission does not use any of the instruments available – though it does have many – to enforce the EU's fundamental values.

For example, the Commission, the Parliament and the European Council, where the states are represented, can act in concert to pursue actions under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 in order to avoid any backward step on democracy for any EU member state. Article 7 intends to suspend the voting rights of a country within the Council in case of a "potential violation of common values​".

In Hungary, however, the stage of risk was overstepped a long time ago. Actions under Article 7 should therefore be urgently taken, as a first step towards a strong EU commitment to defend democracy and its values.

Similarly, European civil society must continue to commit itself strongly to support Hungarian democrats who bravely fight within the country itself.

If the EU and civil society were not to commit themselves with the determination required by the gravity of the situation, we would be doomed to witness its rapid decay, in Hungary and soon elsewhere, if the European commitment turned out to be insufficient.

Let there be no mistake: what is at stake here is the nature of the European project and the ability of Europe to preserve our common and most precious commodity: democracy. For several decades, the choice between barbarism and democracy has never been so obvious.

Resolutely, we have to choose Europe and democracy.

Benjamin Abtan is president of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM)

A man wears a sticker on his mouth bearing the name of Hungary's governing party Fidesz at a protest on 30 March against the country's new constitution. (Photo: Getty.)

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.