EU court backs Slovakia in diplomatic spat with Hungary

BRUSSELS Tue Oct 16, 2012 12:18pm BST

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Slovakia did not break European Union laws guaranteeing the free movement of people when it blocked Hungary's former president from visiting Slovakia three years ago, the EU's highest court ruled on Tuesday.

Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, who ended his five-year term in 2010, had wanted to visit the southern Slovak town of Komarno on August 21, 2009, to inaugurate a statue of Saint Stephen, the founder and first king of Hungary.

But August 21 is a sensitive date for Slovakia -- on that day in 1968, the armies of five Soviet states, including troops from Hungary, invaded what was then Czechoslovakia.

Slovakia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918, saw Solyom's planned visit as an intentional provocation and refused his entry. As a result, Hungary took Slovakia to court, saying it was in breach of EU law.

But after lengthy considerations, the European Court of Justice, the EU's final arbiter on legal issues, determined that Slovakia had a right to block Solyom's entry.

The position of head of state has a specific character under international law, the court said, which means that a citizen's right of free movement under EU law can be curtailed.

"The court finds that EU law did not oblige Slovakia to guarantee access to its territory to the president of Hungary," it said in a statement accompanying its judgment.

"The fact that an EU citizen performs the duties of head of state is such as to justify a limitation, based on international law, on the exercise of the right of free movement."

As a result, the court said it was dismissing Hungary's complaint in its entirety. It is only the sixth time an EU member state has directly brought proceedings against another.

(Reporting and writing by Sofia Bettiza and Martin Santa, editing by Luke Baker)

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