József Szájer on the New Hungarian Constitution

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József Szájer, currently head of Hungary’s FiDeSz European parliamentary group, came for a Guarini Institute event on Monday, February 20, 2012 to discuss the new Hungarian constitution adopted in April of 2011. As a Chairman of the Drafting Committee and having been involved in the constitutional process of Hungary since 1989, Szájer’s knowledge and passion for Hungary’s new Fundamental Law shined clearly throughout the event.

Following Professor Argentieri’s introduction outlining the background of constitutions before, during, and after communism in Eastern and Central Europe, Szájer began with discussing the history of constitutional law in Hungary. Likening Hungary’s tradition to Britain’s in its common law practices, Szájer pointed out that the Soviet-imposed constitution during the communist era essentially ignored his country’s customs and constitutional history. Following the collapse of communism in Europe, Szájer described how despite every party’s announcement of the intent, no attempts were made to write a new constitution until 2010 with the effort in which he was given a leading role.

Breaking down the document by section, Szájer defended criticisms calling the preamble too biased to the center-right, specifically addressing the criticisms of the phrase, “God bless Hungary,” which he pointed out is merely a quotation from the Hungarian national anthem. In closing, the speaker reiterated the elements of the constitution geared to environmental and budgetary sustainability. Proudly stating that the new Fundamental Law outlines a “those who damage, pay” system for environmental issues, Szájer also points to the newly stipulated and empowered budgetary council, which can veto budgets that exceed a maximum deficit, as more evidence for the new constitution being more equipped for the 21st century.

In the next phase of the event, three local and visiting academics questioned and criticized the constitution and were followed by Szájer’s response. The criticisms included a weak argument for the tradition of Hungarian law, a description of rights that range from specific to quite vague (such as for free speech), a weak accommodation of pluralism, and an unnecessary defense of “traditional” marriage. In response, Szájer defended his constitution in saying that all countries have constitutional and nationalists myths, that nine months for writing a new Fundamental Law is a relatively short period of time, and that while the constitution declares marriage between a man and a woman as the only form that is state-endorsed, it does not ban the practice of homosexual relationships or unions. Finally, the speaker pointed out that the overwhelming signal of national approval demonstrated through the referendum is a clear indication of legitimacy.

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