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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the launch of the Judicial Handbook

It’s difficult to wax lyrical about the sort of thing I’m holding now in my hand, Ladies and Gentlemen, but nonetheless I’ll try. I respectfully welcome the attending distinguished members of the legal profession who are here today. If you don’t mind, I would rather not list their names, as that would take up all my time; but as I look around I see present here everyone from the Hungarian legal profession who believes in the importance of the interrelationship between our homeland and legislation, and who is able to survey their own profession from the high vantage point demonstrated by the words we have just heard. Welcome to you all.

Congratulations to the Justice Minister and his colleagues. Minister Trócsányi, thank you for your work. I’m convinced that this handbook will serves as a worthy record of the work completed for Hungary over the past eight years by members of the Hungarian legal profession. For me personally it is a great honour to have taken part in this legislative process. I speak as a member of the generation which, when young – living in the old world and organising our collegiate life as university students – dreamt that in Hungary one day there would be freedom, democracy and the rule of law; we dreamt that the former prestige of both the law and of our profession would be restored.

Before I start today’s review, allow me to reflect on a couple of things we’ve just heard. When you quoted Vladár – particularly his thoughts on the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 – I was struck by the parallel between legislation of that time and the recent legislation of the past eight years. If I noted it down correctly, we heard that the laws of 1848 served only as direction signposts, while the legislative building work which created a legal system that was able to keep Hungary together for four decades came after 1867. If we translate all this into our lives today, we can say that the Constitution adopted in 2011 marked out the directions and laid down the basic principles, and it was the work of the following seven to eight years that have created the legal rules – which the Justice Minister has listed here – forming the supporting pillars of the structure of the Hungarian legal system.

The second comment I’d like to make relates to Vladár’s words describing all the sorts of problems which beset the 1867 Compromise: the justice minister of the time was attacked in Parliament in fiery speeches. Perhaps even the word “bloodthirsty” was mentioned, which is similar in feel to nowadays; and the author wrote that “behind all this there loomed the Burg” [in Vienna]. This, too, has currency now: behind today’s debates there also looms somewhere beginning with the letter “B”: Brussels; and a major proportion of the legal debates are about conflicts between international law and domestic law, between identity and the law of the European Union.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If I were to sum up the significance of the Judicial Handbook in a single sentence, I could say that this code features the laws which guarantee the sovereignty and independence of the Hungarian nation. Let me remind you that from 1990 right up until 2010 no party had a supermajority in Parliament, and so a new constitution was not adopted either. Naturally in those twenty years attempts were made to interpret the 1989 amended version of the old constitution – which referred to itself as “transitional” – as being a de facto new constitution. But those of us who are familiar with the nature of the constitutional debates between 1990 and 2010 all know that this wasn’t possible, and indeed couldn’t be: there is no constitutional system without a constitution. So sooner or later Hungary had to make a choice: either we would determine to have no codified constitution, and return to the ever shrinking world of nations with no written constitution; or we would create a new written constitution to replace the transitional rules. A constitutional majority came into being in 2010. Making use of the legislative opportunity inherent in that majority was a moral duty. We created the new constitution and tasked the then justice minister with building the legal system on the foundations of this new constitution, which was designed to be able to support the entire the independent Hungarian state for decades to come.

From what Minister Trócsányi has just said, I understand that this task was in essence carried out by members of the Hungarian legal profession. Legal rules have been devised which, by reinforcing the Constitution of 2011, are able to support the structure of the Hungarian legal system. I agree with the Justice Minister that it’s not his duty to pass judgement on the quality of the work completed. I would just add that neither is it mine, but as he pointed out in discussing the relationship between legislation and the application of the law, it is clearly those in the business of applying the law who will have to pass judgement and send feedback to legislators on any corrections that may be necessary to improve quality, whilst leaving the underlying principles intact.

However, Ladies and Gentlemen, unless I finish my speech here, I’ll have to continue by saying that now that we’ve completed this task – the post-constitution construction of the legal system – a new task has emerged. Minister Trócsányi has already entered this debate – waist-deep, if I can put it like that. He referred to this just now. This is the debate on identity that is taking place on the European scene. So accordingly I’ve entitled my speech, “A Europe of common sense and fairness – on double standards, on the European Commission’s politicisation of issues, and on the rule of law”. This is what I’d like to talk about now.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is a topical issue, because while we celebrate the distillation of the achievements of legislation over the past eight years, amidst the celebration and praise for the work of the Justice Minister, his predecessors and the entire Hungarian judicial elite we must also recognise that the European Commission is attacking the Hungarian legal system – including our judiciary. It is attacking them now, and will continue to do so over the next few days and weeks – and, I believe, years. It is important to clarify as the starting point of this debate that Hungarian public law is built on one of the world’s richest traditions. For centuries Hungarian constitutional law was one of the most creative and most innovative in Europe. Contemporaneous with Magna Carta, Hungary’s Golden Bull of 1222 set constitutional limits on the monarch’s powers and instituted the right to resist them. The Edict of Torda, which was issued 450 years ago this year, was the first declaration of religious freedom. The Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, which also set limits on the monarch’s powers, accepted female succession. And the civic April Laws of 1848 and the Doctrine of the Holy Crown were also outstanding, pioneering documents, and milestones in European constitutional history. Hungary’s Fundamental Law [the Constitution of 2011], which some in the EU continue to attack to this day, is in many respects also pioneering, and has taken its place in this list of historic legislative documents. The communist regime destroyed Hungary’s exceptional historical constitution. In order to put an end to this unacceptable situation, Article R) of the Fundamental Law – which has reincorporated the achievements of the historical constitution into modern-day constitutional law as a mandatory means for interpretation of the Constitution – has restored the continuity of constitutional law that was disrupted in 1944. Article R) states that legal rules and provisions of the Fundamental Law must be interpreted in accordance with the achievements of our historical constitution. In history of law lectures our former law professors – a fair number of whom are here today – taught us at that in the 19th century Hungarian laws, the Hungarian judiciary and the justice system were in no way inferior to their German or French legislative counterparts. As early as 1869 a modern Hungarian law was passed – Act IV on Judicial Powers – which strengthened the organisation of the judiciary as a branch functioning independently of public administration.

By contrast, Ladies and Gentlemen, the European Union’s legal system is a continuously evolving and changing regulatory system, which has barely more than fifty years of experience to look back on. Due to its brief history, its level of conceptual refinement of doctrine is far below that of a number of Member States – including the level of development of Hungary’s body of national legislation. In many of its elements it struggles with low efficiency in the delivery of justice and with overregulation; it also faces problems stemming from a lack of experience, the underdeveloped state and uncertainties of systems in their immature stages, and conflicts between the differing legal cultures of the individual countries. Today the nations’ legal systems offer security and a guarantee in terms of both the independence of decisions and the content of the law applied. It is no coincidence that fundamentally EU law is enforced and applied by the authorities of the Member States within their national legal boundaries, national traditions and national institutions. We understand that the EU is still busy dealing with the problems of its own law; but we find it hard to contain our surprise when – referring back to its own underdeveloped legal system – it launches politically-motivated attacks on Hungarian law, which is modern, fully compatible with current legal developments, and also based on many centuries of administrative, judicial and constitutional tradition.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The EU does not always apply to itself the principles of the rule of law by which it judges its individual members. The rule of law means that people do not rule other people: in contrast with people – who are often biased – it is the law which rules supreme, according to a single standard applied equally to all, making no distinctions between individuals. As a new concept, I could also add that neither does it make any distinction between countries. The Member States have never transferred control over enforcement of the rule of law to the institutions of the EU. The remit of the EU institutions refers solely to the enforcement of EU law. As regards the constitutionality of the laws of Member States, the legal foundations of their functioning and protection of citizens’ rights, the power to initiate, monitor and apply legislation and other powers are vested in national institutions: constitutional courts, conventional or public administration courts, audit offices, local governments, the executive branch itself, etc. The present members and head of the European Commission – which is in principle ideologically neutral and has the role of the Guardian of the Treaties – began their mandate by announcing that they do not wish to retain their institution’s ideological neutrality. They openly espoused the principle of political bias. This means that, related to the implementation or violation of any given legal rule, they will act as a political body and may apply political considerations in deciding which Member States to hold to account and which not to hold to account. It was in this spirit that, justifying the Commission’s failure to impose the required sanctions on France when it had violated rules on national budget deficits, the President of the Commission explained in a moment of candour that “France is France”. Only a few years ago, the Barroso Commission had no such objective and unbiased justification with regard to Hungary, when it imposed sanctions on us – despite the Hungarian breach being much less significant than the subsequent French violation.

We see further clear examples of double standards in the field of the judiciary. In 2011– 2012 Hungary set out to modernise its judicial system and, in order to accelerate the delivery of rulings, it transformed judicial administration. This included the introducing of compulsory retirement for judges over a certain age. In response, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure – and subsequently court proceedings – against our country in order to protect the social rights of the retired elderly judges. In every forum it portrayed the Hungarian measure as an attack on judicial independence. This would have all been very well. A few years later, however, when the left-wing Italian government retired off older judges, the Commission wholeheartedly welcomed the development as an acceleration of judicial procedures. Clearly, “Italy is Italy”. In its latest – soon to be released – country report, the European Commission finds the entitlement of the National Judicial Council to be inadequate. In doing so, the Commission is engaging in unprecedented interference in Hungary’s election campaign. It is also intentionally “forgetting” the fact that such a body, which functions as an additional guarantee, does not even exist in Germany or Austria, where judges are appointed directly by the executive. “Germany is Germany”, we could say. EU institutions likewise felt no compulsion to speak out when in Austria the most important civic right suffered a disastrous blow, as they were unable to conduct a valid presidential election – to put it politely. While not saying a word about these instances, on a monthly basis EU bodies adopt decisions on Hungary and Poland, citing the allegedly appalling state of the rule of law, Ahmed H. or the archives of the communist György Lukács. Austria was given the respect that is due to every Member State: the EU waited until Austria itself internally remedied the unprecedented violation that had occurred, and repeated the election under regular and lawful circumstances. We were not accorded this respect, and our Polish friends are likewise being denied it. “Austria is Austria”, we could say.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Commission is now attacking the Hungarian government– and thereby entering the Hungarian election campaign – because in some cases it doesn’t hide its opinion with regard to certain court judgements. The Commission is wrong. The principle of checks and balances does not prohibit a single minister from stating their opinion – particularly related to a judgement that has been the focus of public debate. And if the Commission is truly concerned that no one should interfere with ongoing proceedings by stating their views – which is a fair principle and position – why doesn’t it contest the resolution of the European Parliament, which contains aggressive interventionist statements directed at Hungary and Hungarian judges in ongoing criminal proceedings: the trial of Ahmed H.?

In summary, Ladies and Gentlemen, by openly posing as a political body, the European Commission effectively gives anyone the right to treat its decisions as political in nature – including those aiming to protect the Treaty of Lisbon, which serves as the foundation stone of the EU. In other words, breaches of certain rules become – indeed I have to say, have become – political issues rather than legal ones. This is a complete contradiction of the principle of the rule of law. Surrendering the principle of neutrality leads to the destruction of cooperation within the European Union, because it institutionalises double standards – always in favour of larger countries and at the expense of smaller ones. How did Orwell put it? There are those who are equal, and those who are more equal. Overturning the principle of the Commission acting as “the Guardian of the Treaties” shakes the system of European institutions to its very foundations. This is what the imbalance between Member States and EU institutions leads to, along with experiments such as the introduction of the principle of the “leading candidate” – the Spitzenkandidat – of which there’s no mention whatsoever in the founding treaties. Behind this it’s hard not to observe the agenda – which can hardly be described as hidden, as it’s no longer concealed – aimed at suppression of Member States’ rights and the creation of a United States of Europe. And we must be aware that, as a result of the latest developments, a United States of Europe would mean that ours would be an immigrant continent: an immigrant Europe, and within it a Hungary which has been made an immigrant country. In light of this, how can one create a united European community if the same rules are interpreted in different ways for each country, according to particular preferences? The Hungarian proposal is that we should stay true to the principle that “Europe is Europe”: the same rules should apply to every member, and the organisations whose duty it is to ensure this should return to the principles of common sense and fairness, and serve the whole of Europe and every European citizen. Let Europe once again be a Europe of common sense and fairness. I wish the Justice Minister the best in the battle that is needed to achieve this.

Ceterum censeo: respect for Hungary!

Thank you for your attention.