In one of the first decisions made after the EP elections which brought Fidesz a clear victory in Hungary, but not quite what was calculated in Europe, PMO chief Gergely Gulyás announced “that the Hungarian government indefinitely suspends” the implementation of the much-criticized public administration courts.
Gulyás argued that “the measure has been in the cross-fire of international debates that raised ‘unfounded’ questions regarding its effects on the independence of judges. Until these debates can be satisfactorily settled, the government will propose postponing the system’s introduction, he added. He also said that they don’t want to expose Hungary to an infringement procedure similar to the one currently in progress against Poland concerning the changes made to their judiciary system.
Independence of Judges in Danger?
The implementation of public administration courts -a parallel system to the existing one- has long been of great importance to Orbán and Fidesz. The governing alliance already tried to push through a similar package in 2012 and 2016. Government politicians argued that this is, in fact, the reintroduction of an independent administrative court system that was abolished by the communists seventy years ago. In addition, Fidesz leaders often criticized the current judicial system, saying that it was packaged with communists and liberals.
Then on December 12th, the National Assembly voted to green-light the implementation, facing criticism from experts and opposition both domestically and internationally. While the implementation’s long-time propagator, justice minister László Trócsányi himself insisted that it is in the people’s interest and argued that the independence of judges was not in danger, critics saw the move as Orbán’s new attempt to erode democratic institutions.
New Admin Courts: People’s or Govt’s Interest?
Critics argue that the package severely undermines judicial independence, since the government would have oversight of the institution, with the Orbán-appointed justice minister in control of appointing judicial positions and promotion of judges. Also, admin courts would have jurisdiction over cases relating to “public administration,” including politically sensitive matters like electoral law, corruption, state refusals over data requests of public interest, and the right to protest. As a result, if someone would have a problem with the government’s decision-making bodies in the future, they would only be able to turn to a court also under indirect government control. Many fear that since the package contains the transformation of the hiring system, it would ease the admission of those coming from higher levels of public administration, hiring officials loyal to the government. The government, however, has denied these claims.
The government appeared keen to amend the laws after the European Commission’s advisory body, the Venice Commission, found that “it lacked effective checks and balances.” Although according to human rights watchdog, the Helsinki Committee, it has failed to address crucial details.
“This way it might be easier for the EPP to keep us in”
Not surprisingly, the announcement that came only days after the EP elections, suddenly set off speculation. Many argue that the EP elections made Orbán change his mind and back off. While EPP guarded its pole position, it also lost seats, and greens and liberals also increased in power, making coalition an option. However, EU-critics haven’t gained as much as Orbán perhaps previously counted on; therefore, staying within the EP might have suddenly become vital for Fidesz in order to safeguard its influence and maintain its impact on decision-making.
Orbán: Combat Won in Hungary, Battle Lost in Europe, but What about The ‘War’?
Indeed, Fidesz’s rhetoric considerably changed after the elections. While pro-Fidesz media, and Fidesz politicians themselves have been heavily criticized, especially since threating the EPP with leaving, after May 26th this rhetoric has definitely been scaled back, with Orbán perhaps realising that he may now need the EPP more than it needs him.
In his recent interview with German conservative daily die Welt, Gulyás said Hungary wanted to avoid another showdown with the European Commission over the country’s justice system, pointing out that another dispute could have “negative consequences.” When asked if the government’s decision had been made in the interest of Fidesz keeping its EPP membership, Gulyás said that this was not the motivation behind the move, adding, however, that the decision “might make it easier for the EPP to keep us in.”
Although Gulyás denied it, many speculated that the withdrawal might have also been a quid pro quo for naming current justice minister László Trócsányi as Hungary’s next European commissioner.
This seems to confirm one of Fidesz’s top European politicians, József Szájer’s words, who, on Tuesday, told Inforádió that “Fidesz will remain in the EPP’s EP faction, and we want to lead important committees.”
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