Interview with Péter Györkös, Hungary’s ambassador to the EU
Going to court “not the end of the world”
By Manon Malhère | Monday 02 April 2012
The Hungarian government will have to respond to the two reasoned opinions that the European Commission sent, on 7 March, on the retirement age of judges and on the independence of the national data protection authority (see box). In this interview, Hungary’s Ambassador to the EU, Péter Györkös, recaps these and the other ongoing procedures. Györkös stresses that the Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have yet to define under what conditions the formal negotiations on the granting of a precautionary credit line by the EU and the IMF can start. Yet, the President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, had stated, on 18 January, in front of the European Parliament and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, that “We made it clear that the issue of the independence of the central bank needs to be addressed before we can start formal negotiations on the requested EU-IMF financial assistance”. When this issue ofEuropolitics
went to press, Budapest was to give the Commission its response to the letter it had received on 7 March regarding the country’s Central Bank.
Hungary is facing infringement procedures on several counts. Could you please give us the lowdown?
Let’s put these procedures in three boxes. One covers the classical infringement procedures (two reasoned opinions and two letters). The second is about the excessive deficit procedure, including the suspension of Cohesion Funds from the beginning of 2013 if no correction happens. And the third is for starting negotiation on a precautionary credit line.There is no legal justification for linking them to each other, but there is nevertheless a link between these three dimensions. At the same time, it is in our great interest to keep this process under control and try to solve these elements piece by piece.
Regarding the letter sent on the independence of the Central Bank: the modifications are the condition to start negotiations on an EU-IMF precautionary credit line. Is that right?
It plays I guess a crucial role. When and under what conditions these negotiations will start it is up to the other side. The prime minister sent two letters. One to the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and another to the Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde. Both institutions have reacted by saying that they are not in a position to define a timetable and a set of conditions because there are so many issues all around Hungary that they need certain clarifications. I do hope that progress can help to get very soon a much clearer picture when and under what conditions these negotiations can be started and concluded.
With regard to the reasoned opinion on the reduction of the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62 years, which is a major concern for the Commission: what changes does the government intend to make?
The Hungarian parliament adopted a legislation, and the basic concept was to bring each and every profession in the public sector to the same standard because the previous system was unsustainable. The Commission says it is discriminatory and also it is creating problems for the independence of the judiciary (regarding the retirement age of the judges). I guess the second argument is simply not true because it is a retirement issue. The Hungarian government proposed a scheme during the first stage of the infringement procedure. The Commission was not convinced. So, we will come back with a new response. I cannot enter into details but it will eliminate all elements where the Commission could accuse the government of discrimination.
What about the measure that requires an examination for judges who want a prolongation?
I can imagine that there will be changes in this proposed scheme. But, what it is sure is that the system will be generalised for all so-called appointed servants in the public sector. Sixty-two years will be the mandatory retirement age. After that, any civil servant younger than 70 will be able to apply individually for a prolongation of his or her mandate. So there will be no discrimination at all against the judges.
Where are we regarding the reasoned opinion on the national data protection authority, and most specifically on its independence?
About the independence of the authority, the government has already submitted amendment proposals when answering the letter of formal notice. The Commission’s reaction was that in principle these are rectifying the problem, but it could not give the green light before the final adoption by the Hungarian parliament. So, for me, this problem does not exist anymore because these amendments, which in substance were accepted by the Commission, were submitted to the Hungarian parliament ten days ago. They are in the process of parliamentary approval.
Next is the premature termination of the mandate of the ombudsman.
Here, our positions are rather far apart, I admit. Because the Commission says that the Hungarian legislation violates the independence of the data protection scheme. I do not want to prejudge the direction of the Commission’s answer on the basis of the reasoned opinion. But if the Commission decides to go to court, it is not the end of the world because each and every member state and the Commission have the right to clarify issues if they are not clarified during the procedure. It is not our basic interest to go to the court, but we could not exclude the possibility. This is an option.
The Venice Commission says that the independence of the judiciary is under threat. Would the government make any changes to its legislation?
One thing should be clear: the government on its own initiative has asked the Venice Commission for its opinion. Now the Venice Commission report says that the law can challenge the independence of the judiciary if it remains unchanged. And, the government has submitted amendment proposals that cover to a great extent the issue of powers in the system. So, a huge part of the Venice Commission’s observations will be taken into account but that does not mean all the elements. There are several reasons for this. Nevertheless, there is a positive reception of the opinion.
What about the concentration of powers in the hands of the president of the National Judicial Office?
There will be a new distribution of powers between different players. In other words, power will be more collectively exercised.
There is also the question of the media law…
The Hungarian parliament has recently adopted 360 laws. We accept the criticism that some of these contain elements that need to be clarified. The Council of Europe gives opinions or if the obligations covered by the EU treaty are concerned, then it is up to the European Commission to react. Both systems work. And, step by step, all these issues will be clarified. But there is one very important element: equal treatment. And sometimes we are not very far from a situation where solutions and schemes which are in practice in other member states are criticised in the case of Hungary. So, everybody should be aware that yes, rules and principles have to be respected but one of the major principles of the European construction is equal treatment.
17 January: European Commission launches three infringement proceedings against Hungary concerning its new laws on the independence of its central bank, the retirement age for judges and public prosecutors, and the Hungarian data protection authority (formal letters).
18 January: Commission sends a letter to Budapest concerning the freedom and the pluralism of the media in Hungary.
17 February: Hungary responds to the three formal letters from the Commission.
7 March: Commission decides to move to the next stage of accelerated infringement proceedings and sends two reasoned opinions to Budapest on the retirement age for judges and the independence of the national data protection authority. The Commission also sends two letters: one asking for additional explanation on the independence of the central bank, the other concerning the independence of the judiciary.
31 March: Deadline set for Hungary to reply to the letter concerning the independence of the central bank.
7 April: Deadline set for Hungary to reply to the two reasoned opinions and to the letter concerning the independence of the judiciary.
16 February: European Parliament adopts a resolution expressing “serious concern” about the situation in Hungary.
13 March: Ecofin Council adopts a decision suspending 495.2 million euro in scheduled commitments for Hungary under the EU’s Cohesion Fund as from the beginning of 2013. It also adopted a recommendation under the EU’s excessive deficit procedure, setting 2012 as the target year for correction of Hungary’s deficit (less than 3% of the GDP).
16-17 March: Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, notably adopts an opinion on the legal statute and the remuneration of the judges, and on the organisation and administration of the courts in Hungary.