Hungary row: EU party allies 'back Orban'

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary in Brussels, 30 Jan 13
Image caption Mr Orban says fundamental legal reform is long overdue in Hungary

Members of the main centre-right bloc in the European Parliament have backed the Hungarian government despite EU concerns about its human rights record.

At a meeting of the European People's Party (EPP) there were no official calls to expel Hungary's ruling party Fidesz from EPP ranks, a spokeswoman for the bloc told the BBC.

The European Commission has criticised constitutional changes by Fidesz.

Some MEPs suspect an abuse of power by Fidesz, which has a big majority.

Hungary's conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban attended the EPP meeting on Tuesday evening, and "nobody there ever asked for the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP", the bloc's spokeswoman Delia Vlase said.

Another EPP source who attended the meeting told the BBC that "there were many supportive statements" for Mr Orban, "as well as some concerns and criticism about some economic decisions [in Hungary]". "But the outcome was quite positive for Mr Orban and he received huge applause at the end," said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

On Friday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso sent a letter to Mr Orban warning that the changes in Hungary - called the Fourth Amendment - could be incompatible with EU law and the principle of the rule of law.

He said the Commission would take legal action against Hungary if it failed to address those concerns.

The concerns relate to the power of a top legal official to assign cases to certain courts, the extent of party political advertising during election campaigns and the way Hungary handles European Court of Justice rulings.

'Respect EU values'

Clauses about the rights of families, students and homeless people are also highly controversial in Hungary.

Mr Orban says the changes are necessary in order to complete the work of eradicating the legacy of Communism from Hungary. The constitution, enacted in January 2012, replaced one drafted in 1989, at a time when the country was emerging from 40 years of Communist rule.

The EU's Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told MEPs on Wednesday that Hungary's constitutional reform "has to be done in full respect of the values on which the EU is founded".

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission is investigating the reform and will report back to the Commission in June. A panel of MEPs is conducting a separate inquiry, with a June deadline too.

But Ms Reding said that if the Commission found breaches of EU rules in Hungary before June it would not wait to launch infringement proceedings against Mr Orban's government.

A human rights breach by an EU member state can be punished under the EU's Article Seven, which allows for suspension of a country's voting rights in serious cases.

Ms Reding called that article "a kind of atomic bomb" and said the EU needed "a better developed set of instruments" to allow for intervention in cases like Hungary's.

The head of the parliament's liberal group (ALDE), Guy Verhofstadt, urged the Commission to use Article Seven against Hungary.

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