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Volume 734: debated on Monday 30 January 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Hungary and to the European Union in regard to the introduction and extent of Hungary’s new constitution.

My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister for Europe, David Lidington, has spoken to both his Hungarian counterpart, Ms Eniko Gyori, and to Commission President Barroso’s chief of staff, Johannes Laitenberger, about recent developments in Hungary. Mr Lidington outlined the UK position that we support the upholding of EU laws and encourage constructive Hungarian engagement to address any concerns raised as a result of the Commission’s analysis of recent legislative changes.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging reply. However, rather than just making technical changes to Hungarian legislation, as occurred when there was a problem with its media laws, can the European Union do something more substantial on these fundamental questions of democracy in Hungary to ensure that the principles of the European Union, and Hungary’s membership of it, are fortified rather than diluted?

I think that the intervention and the position taken by the Commission reflect some of that concern. As far as the UK is concerned, we urge the Hungarian authorities to be constructive and flexible and to honour their international obligations, as indeed we would urge any other fellow member of the European Union to do in similar circumstances.

Is the Minister aware of the degree to which the new Government in Hungary are already cracking down on free speech? The mayor of Budapest has sacked the director of the New Theatre there and appointed someone from the Jobbik party, and that same party is now challenging the country’s National Theatre. Some 70 figures in this country’s arts world have voiced their protest against such censorship. Will the Government back them?

We certainly recognise all the concerns that the noble Baroness has put forward, and it is right that we urge change. The European Commission released its analysis of the compatibility of Hungarian legislation with the EU treaty obligations on 17 January. The acute concerns that the noble Baroness has mentioned are valid. We submit that the Commission’s approach is a sensible and constructive handling of the situation. That is our position.

My Lords, Hungary is also a member of the Council of Europe. Do the Government consider that the new constitution is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly as regards freedom of conscience and freedom of association?

That is an important matter to consider and we will consider it. Obviously, a number of processes are at work here. We are dealing partly with the European Union and the Commission and partly with the track that the noble Lord has outlined and pointed to. We will focus on that as well.

Does the noble Lord, following on from the last question, recognise that we in the United Kingdom are in a unique position at present as we hold the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe? Does he share the views expressed last week in the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly by the Secretary-General, Mr Thorbjorn Jagland, who said that the situation in Hungary shames us all?

I certainly share the concerns, and I also share the hopes reflected in the noble Lord’s question—that in our chairmanship position we will be able to carry these concerns forward. The noble Lord is quite right to draw attention to that.

My Lords, given that Hungary went through years of dictatorship under Nazi occupation and then through years of dictatorship under the Soviet regimes, would it not be surprising if the people of Hungary were not aware of that past and willing to fight very hard for their freedoms, and should we not assist them when they do?

Of course we should. Certainly speaking for myself, one of the turning points in my lifetime was when these countries, which were in effect enslaved under communism, came into freedom in the latter part of the last century. That was a wonderful thing. We played a good part in bringing it about and we must continue to fight for those freedoms. I agree with the noble Lord.

My Lords, given that there are prospects for further enlargement of the European Union—we have had much discussion about Turkey and other countries—would it not be appropriate to take a very strong line indeed with Hungary? Its Prime Minister has, in fact, played games with nationalism and democracy for quite a few years now, even before he became Prime Minister, through his party. The more clearly that the Council of Europe can give an indication that this is not acceptable for a member of the European Union, the more likely it is that other countries will look very carefully at it before deciding whether to move towards membership.

My noble friend is right that there is concern here, and it is a matter that both aspiring and current members of the European Union should closely follow and be engaged in. Hungary is a nation of many virtues and has been through many difficulties. We want it to continue and prosper as a free nation and not to be constrained by undesirable and unsavoury laws. We recognise that, and we have to work very hard on that basis.

My Lords, although it is right and proper to be positive and constructive in our relationship with Hungary at this difficult time, ultimately, what sanctions are available to the EU?

The sanctions are those that are available to the European Union as an organisation which requires certain standards that we adhere to very strongly—standards of behaviour, and moral, legal and social standards—throughout the European Union. That is the sanction available on that side. The Council of Europe also has powers to censure, and, indeed, challenge the continued membership of organisations within it. These are powerful pressures that need to be used in a balanced way and with the right approach. That is the situation which we are now grappling with.

My Lords, is there not a problem here which has to be resolved? On the one hand, the people of Hungary have decided to have a Government and a new constitution that do not fit in with the rest of Europe. On the other hand, the European Union cannot possibly accept a Government of Hungary who have a constitution that is not in accordance with its views and background. How do we resolve the problem? Who is going to win in this—the electorate of Hungary or the European Union?

I do not quite see it in that sort of Manichean analysis between the European Union and Hungary. I see that there are certain objective standards of good government and free government, and the freedoms that we all fought for during all our lifetimes, and that these should be upheld. The European Union is a repository of those freedoms, as is the Council of Europe. When those standards are being departed from or flouted in any member state—indeed, we can extend this to organisations outside Europe, such as the Commonwealth—then all pressure should be brought to bear. It is not just a question of the European Union versus Hungary; it is a question of the proper rule of law, good governance, democracy and the core values and principles that we stand for and have fought for being adhered to in every possible way.