March 8, 2013 / 7:57 PM / in 7 years

EU's Barroso critical of Hungary constitution vote

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission has expressed concerns over a vote in Hungary’s parliament next week to change the constitution, arguing it contravenes EU rules in areas such as the judiciary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban presents his annual state-of-the-nation speech in Budapest, February 22, 2013. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

In a phone call on Friday afternoon, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told Prime Minister Viktor Orban that his government and the parliament should address concerns “in accordance with EU democratic principles”.

“We will now continue bilateral consultations to discuss the concerns,” said EU executive spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen.

Earlier this week, the European institution responsible for defending human rights, the Council of Europe, urged Budapest to postpone the vote, which could limit the powers of the highest court, saying it would put Hungary’s democratic checks and balances at risk.

Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has called the criticism unjustified and said it respected its obligations to the Council and to the European Union.

The bill is due for a final parliamentary vote next week.

But Barroso said he shared the Council’s views and expressed concerns over issues such as changes to advertising rules for next year’s European Parliament election.

Other issues include rules on judgments rendered by Europe’s top court and on the retirement age of judges.

Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said Orban had assured the Commission on Friday any changes to Hungarian law would comply with EU norms.

The U.S. State Department also said on Friday the proposed amendments could threaten “the principles of institutional independence” and should be reviewed.

Orban’s government has repeatedly clashed with the EU over legislation in the past three years, when it has rewritten hundreds of laws thanks to its two-thirds majority in parliament.

Diplomats in Brussels and Washington have raised concerns over Orban’s efforts to cement Fidesz’s powers in the judiciary, media and other institutions, which critics say have weakened the rule of law in the central European country.

The draft legislation has also been criticised by human rights organisations such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which said it was an act of “retaliation” by Fidesz after the Constitutional Court annulled several laws in past months.

The draft law says the court can examine the constitution or amendments to it only in terms of formal procedural aspects, thus curbing the court’s powers.

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Sophie Hares

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