Recently, the European Parliament voted to begin the Article 7 sanctions process against Hungary. Their resolution was a response to “a clear risk of a serious breach…of the values on which the [European] Union is founded,” and aimed “to restore inclusive democracy, the rule of law, and respect for fundamental rights in Hungary.”
The unprecedented vote to invoke Article 7 illustrates the current battle lines within the EU between those who favor a greater role for Brussels and those hoping to retain and recover national self-determination. The measure claims even more authority for the EU than at first appears. By castigating Hungary’s policies towards religion and the family, the resolution aims to extend Brussels’ reach over values and institutions that have long been left to member states. Commentators, including critics of the move, have failed to properly see this.
To be sure, these are not the only targets of criticism. Others range from constitutional matters to the electoral system, corruption, privacy issues, and Hungary’s position on non-EU migration. I intend neither to defend Hungary from these charges nor argue that the country’s laws cannot be improved.
Nevertheless, by including Hungary’s approach to religion and the family as reasons for Article 7 sanctions, the European Parliament is sending a clear message. Hungarians are to replace their values and conceptions of these two basic institutions with those more acceptable to Brussels. This demand is not the outcome of dialogue and open debate, but an attempt by one side to impose its vision.
The Article 7 resolution criticizes Hungarian legislation that affects religious organizations. It finds fault with an act that regulates religious groups that distinguishes between faith-based organizations and recognized churches, and offers the latter, currently 31 in total, the prerogative to enter into agreements with the State regarding “public interest activities” and receive funding. The measure replaced a system in which most of the 406 registered religious entities were partly funded, directly or indirectly, by the state, with some more interested in financial benefits than pursuing religious activities.
The European Parliament complains that the new act will lead to “an unequal and even discriminatory treatment of religious beliefs and communities.” It cites the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against the law, on the basis that distinctions in legal status between religious organizations may cause the adherents of some religions to “feel…tolerated—but not welcome.”
Such distinctions mean Hungary is not fully neutral among the different faith-based groups. And some no doubt suspect that the aim is to privilege Christianity, especially given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s descriptions of Europe as a Christian civilization and Hungary as a Christian nation, and the Hungarian Constitution’s appeal to “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.”
In actuality, recognized religious groups range from Christian churches to Jewish communities, a Hindu group, and Muslim and Buddhist umbrella organizations. But even if the measure did aim at privileging Christianity, it is far from clear that it would be illegitimate. Hungary, after all, is a country with strong Christian foundations in which national identity is tied up with Christianity (Pew Research Center data shows that 66 percent of Hungarians think being Christian is important for being Hungarian). It is hardly a surprise, then, that Hungarians might want to sustain their country’s Christian heritage. Nor would it be groundbreaking, given European history and official Christian state churches in other EU member states.
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It would be troubling if privileges for some religious groups came with the suppression of others. But nothing of the sort is taking place in Hungary. As the ECHR itself notes, there is “no indication that the applicants are prevented from practicing their religion as legal entities…[with] autonomy vis-à-vis the State.” The court objects, rather, that the denial of benefits to religious entities that previously had them constitutes a violation of their “freedom to manifest…religion.” But as the dissenting opinion to the ruling points out, this logic is questionable. It implies, for instance, that changing old laws is illegitimate if some religious groups, but not others, lose their funding.
The resolution inveighs also against a constitutional amendment authorizing the Hungarian National Assembly to select “religious communities” for “cooperation” in the service of “community goals.” The legislature, it protests, is granted too much “discretionary power.”
But the complaint ignores the Hungarian Constitution’s explicit guarantees of “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and the autonomy of religious communities. Besides, the whole point of representative democracy is to enable legislatures to decide on such issues. Who should make decisions on community goals and state cooperation with religious organizations if not elected representatives?
No doubt arguments can be made in favor of greater state neutrality between religious groups. But this is a political debate, best carried out in national legislatures. Assuming basic rights to practice religion are respected, as they are in Hungary, why should Brussels intervene?
Further, the Article 7 resolution condemns Hungary’s family policies. It cites a UN report criticizing Hungary for its protection of “a conservative form of family.” Hungary may deem such protection essential for national survival, but this, the resolution asserts, is insufficiently attuned to women’s empowerment. The Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality complains that the Hungarian Constitution’s “definition of family…as ‘marriage and partner-child relationships’ is outdated and based on conservative beliefs.”
These charges declare the promotion of the traditional family suspect. Member states are not free to determine the shape of this basic institution; Brussels must be the final arbiter.
It is worth asking what gives the EU authority on this issue and whether its involvement is merited, particularly as free movement of labor within the union allows people to move to countries with preferable laws. In addition, it should be stressed that a key reason for Hungary’s family policies is the biggest demographic threat facing Europe: low birthrates. The Hungarian government has unveiled an action plan to get back to the replacement rate by 2030. It has, for instance, increased benefits to families, and in this context it is no surprise that it would promote the traditional form of family. Whether due to this or other factors, its efforts have met some success. Marriage rates increased by 46 percent between 2010 and 2016 after a decade of decline. The long-term effects on birth rates remain to be seen, but the EU should not discourage member states’ efforts to achieve sustainable populations.
Overall, the Article 7 resolution claims to protect “European values.” Since Hungarian laws on religion and family are included as reasons for Article 7 sanctions, it is safe to assume that they too are seen as dangers to such values.
But what are these “European values”? Both the Article 7 resolution and Judith Sargentini, the Dutch Green member of the European Parliament (MEP) supporting it, state that they are the values “we all share.” This is obviously false. Clearly the majority of Hungarians and many other Europeans do not share them, which is exactly the problem at hand. The parliamentary vote itself reflects a divide: Central and Eastern European MEPs as well as conservative, nationalist, and Euroskeptic MEPs from Western Europe mainly voted against the resolution or abstained, while Liberals and Socialists across the EU voted in favor. Europe is hardly speaking with a unified voice.
What about the emotional public appeals for “the protection of democracy and the rule of law”? These two terms certainly serve a useful rhetorical role given their positive connotations and wide acceptance. Who these days would say they are against either? But both lead us back to the real accusation against Hungary—that the country is failing to live up to certain values.
To make sense of this, democracy has to be understood as shorthand for something like “democratic values,” rather than the more traditional “rule of the people.” The resolution’s talk of “inclusive democracy” points to exactly such meaning. Indeed, as the French thinker Pierre Manent has written in his Democracy Without Nations, over time, democracy in Europe has been emptied of its original and political sense of self-government and replaced with talk of “democratic”—or in this case “European”—values.
As for “the rule of law,” in its basic sense the term refers to the authority and acceptance of law by government and society, as opposed to personal will or force. There is no reason to think that traditional marriage laws or benefits for religious groups fulfilling certain criteria violate it. Of course, rule of law by itself tells us very little. It does not guarantee that laws are as they shou