Hungary proposes legal changes to allay EU's democracy concerns: minister

BUDAPEST Fri Jun 7, 2013 12:03pm EDT

Hungary's Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi answers questions during a news conference in Prague February 21, 2012. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Hungary's Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi answers questions during a news conference in Prague February 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/David W Cerny

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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary is ready to tweak its constitution to allay European Union criticism that new laws undermine democracy, the country's foreign minister said on Friday.

The EU, the United States and human rights groups have accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban's nationalist government of using constitutional amendments to boost its own powers and to weaken the independence of Hungary's courts.

Orban, who has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over laws on the media, the central bank and the courts since sweeping to power in 2010, denies that the changes approved in March are anti-democratic but has signaled a readiness to compromise.

Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said that Budapest had sent a letter to the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, proposing the removal of two sensitive clauses from the constitution involving the courts and tax payments.

The first clause affects powers granted to the president of the national office for the judiciary to transfer cases.

"The government will resolve the problem of overburdened courts with appropriate structural changes," Martonyi told a news conference.

Budapest will also remove a clause that allows it to impose new taxes to cover payment obligations arising from rulings of the European Court of Justice or other international courts, he said. Instead, it will set forth in a law on economic stability that unexpected costs may be covered by new taxes.

However, Martonyi said Hungary would not change restrictions on the publication of political advertisements which would also apply to European parliamentary elections.

Orban, a 50-year-old conservative, has revamped hundreds of laws in the past three years but says his changes are democratic because of his large parliamentary majority.

He says he has come under attack for threatening the interests of foreign business lobbies with hefty taxes on banks, energy and telecoms companies.

Orban has challenged EU legal experts to present evidence if they have any problems with the constitutional amendments.

The Venice Commission, a legal body of the Council of Europe, is expected to present a detailed report about the Hungarian legislation later this month.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai, editing by Gareth Jones)

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