First, I have to make a disclaimer because I forgot to mention this in my opening remarks. I am not here to attack my country or government. I think of myself as a true patriot. My country is democratic and a great place in which to live. Civil society in any given country has a mission to strive to make its own country a better place and a better democracy, as well as helping people to achieve their aspirations and live a decent life. To quote Shakespeare - "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." but I did not come to bury the Hungarian Government. However, I do not want to assume the position of praising it either because, as a critical civil society organisation, I want to point to those instances where it should do better.
Members of the committee have raised the question of what the European Union has to do with this issue. I would be the last to say it should impose Article 7 against Hungary, suspend the country's voting rights or cease funding it. One must bear in mind that 98% of the foreign direct investment reaching the country comes from the EU Structural and Cohesion Funds. Stopping this flow of investment would condemn the country to starvation, which would be extremely bad for the population. Who am I to ask for any political or intergovernmental step to starve my own nation or make my own population suffer and feel bad? It is not a question of striving to get rid of the government in Hungary, rather it is to help it to understand there are certain rules and standards which it is required to meet and expected to live up to.
I have to admit that a number of civil society organisations find that the European Union has a questionable role in this process. That is because supposedly there are no adequate answers to these challenges, whereby one country, that is, a member of NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, as well as being a signatory to a number of international anti-corruption and human rights agreements, is deviating from this trajectory and the government is taking it towards an eastern type of post-communist rule. We always try to urge EU member states, as well as parliamentarians and officials - I ask the committee to consider whether it could possibly do this - to persuade the Union at an organisational level to find the key balance between Article 7 and funding a country with reservations. The Hungarian Government seems to have an inclination to perpetuate its power based on EU funding.
I turn more specifically to committee members' questions. Senator Colm Burke raised the issue of the ordinary law courts. In Hungary it is understood courts of law are not entitled to revise legislation issued either by the parliament or the government from a constitutional perspective. They are there to implement the law in individual cases. It is up to the parliament, from a political viewpoint, to decide whether laws meet constitutional requirements and are in line with standards enshrined in European law or in keeping with domestic constitutional traditions. Parliaments are political bodies that vote draft Bills and other instruments into law. Ultimately, the constitutional court will decide. Ordinary law courts may refer cases on a pending legal procedure to the constitutional court, seeking a revision or an opinion on certain constitutional aspects of the laws they are supposed to implement. This has happened many times. Even after being packed with questionable personalities, the constitutional court issued a number of decisions which were unpleasant for the government. However, the government used its regulatory power to rewrite the constitution on a daily basis and shrink the jurisdiction of the constitutional court to prevent it from issuing an opinion or revising laws on taxation, social contributions and public revenue matters, unless humanitarian issues were touched on.
I must stress firmly that the law courts are independent in our country. We have no evidence to indicate that in given individual legal proceedings a judge or law court showed partiality or bias towards the government's cause.
Their decisions are independent, impartial and unbiased. Of course, there are quality problems with the Hungarian judiciary. Cases were not rendered in a timely manner and sometimes the equal opportunities of clients were called into question, but no political influence was exercised in individual decisions of law courts, at least not to the extent that civil society could perceive it. We believe the law courts are the last line of defence and rely on their adjudications and deliberations.
Deputy Eric Byrne enumerated several issues which, one by one, go far beyond the scope of what I can address. Of course, there are several concerns, including the situation of the Roma population, media attacks, criminalising homelessness or certain human behaviours linked with underprivileged or homeless persons and the emergence of an understanding that the Roman Catholic group of churches should have prominence in public issues. There are many issues on which Transparency International, the organisation I am representing, has nothing to say because it is an anti-corruption organisation.
I draw the attention of the committee to a matter that partly reflects the comments of Deputy Joe O'Reilly. It is not necessarily the content of the laws voted on by the Hungarian Parliament that pose a problem or have questionable outcomes. Sometimes there are specific restrictions on individual human rights, but the process at the end of which these laws are introduced, adopted and voted is questionable. For instance, the fundamental law of the country, that is, the Hungarian constitution, was adopted by an opaque procedure. Virtually no one knows who drafted the text of the constitution. It is called a one-party constitution not only by the political opposition but also by human rights organisations and deemed to primarily reflect the needs and ideas of the governing political force of the country. The constitution which was supposed or expected to be a long-lasting modern constitution of an emerging new democracy has already been amended five times, not only from a technical point of view. As the Chairman pointed out, the fourth amendment brings to constitutional level several ordinary legal questions simply to prevent the constitutional court of Hungary from ruling further on certain issues. In the Hungarian understanding, if something is written in the constitution, the constitutional court is prevented from rendering it null and void on the basis that it is unconstitutional. The understanding is that the text of the constitution cannot be unconstitutional. Even the Council of Europe Venice Commission raised a concern stating the consistent pattern to constitutionalise ordinary legal regulations was undemocratic in how things were dealt with in my country.
Please forgive me if I am not covering all of the concerns raised by members. I am keen to take the opportunity given to me by Deputy Joe O'Reilly to further articulate my concerns and points. The background paper provided for the committee is rather general, with a top-down approach in highlighting only a number of key issues.
I am reluctant to say that, as civil society representatives, we should call for patience in respect of our government simply because Hungary has a hard and demanding historical background. It does not have a long track record of democracy, owing to our sad and sometimes disappointing history and communism. We do not expect immediate and overnight change from a totalitarian regime to a full western-type democracy, for such an entity only lives in the imaginations of people who have never lived in western countries. What we expect as true patriots - we are true patriots - is that our country or government will not change the trajectory of governance of the country which, at one stage, was set to take our society closer to a western-type democracy in which public decisions would be reached using the common wisdom of society in an inclusive manner and in which discretionary decisions, preferential legislation and regulations and questionable enrichment would be the exception rather than the rule. We have several specific individual corruption cases which I have deliberately not addressed in front of this esteemed committee because this is not a courtroom. There are cases of questionable enrichment due to excessive access to public contracts on behalf of government friends. Our government concluded a contract with Russia's President Putin for a major government loan from Russia to develop a new nuclear power plant in the country. Although the government had full indemnity and authorisation from the parliament to do so, this was an opaque issue and the amount of money involved, €10 billion, was unimaginable in an Hungarian context. A public debate on the issue would have been much appreciated by many members of society because it represented a major exposure to a country that had ruled our country for many years and from which we were happy to be freed only 25 years ago.
As the representative of a anti-corruption organisation, I am hardly entitled - certainly I do not feel entitled - to cover issues to do with the Roma, homelessness and religious groups. However, I will offer one last remark on the laws on churches and religious groups. One of the greatest achievements of the country was that religious groups which had been badly oppressed during communist rule were given the privilege of being registered by the courts. This involved a judicial decision to register a group of people as belonging to a church. Why is this important? It is important because judges are independent. The government accused several unspecified religious groups of being business churches which used the characteristics of being a church only to gain tax exemptions. This may be true and it is a serious accusation, but no government, police or criminal investigation followed. Instead a new law followed the accusation stating the registration of churches was to be removed from the courts to parliament, from a judicial to a political decision. Certain religious groups in the family of Christianity which engaged in a delicate social mission such as caring for homeless persons or providing prison pastoral care were denied on a political basis the possibility of registration as a church. This occurred because the parliament could not make a finding on a decision outside the sphere of political terrain; parliaments are political bodies.
I apologise for idly picking on certain issues, but committee members raised so many important questions. I am happy to answer further specific questions which I provoked with my scattered answers.