BRUSSELS Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban broke EU law when he fired the head of the country's data protection agency, the European Court of Justice said on Tuesday, in a ruling likely to reignite tensions with Brussels over Hungary's reforms.
Orban, who won re-election on Sunday by a landslide, curtailed the independence of the agency in 2012 when he removed its chief Andras Jori almost three years before the end of his term, the court said, ruling in favour of the European Commission that brought the case.
"The independence of supervisory authorities necessarily covers the obligation to allow them to serve their full term of office," the European Union's highest court said in a statement.
Orban argued Jori's removal was part of a reform to instead establish a state authority to safeguard information rights whose head is appointed by the president, following a proposal by the prime minister.
Reacting to the court decision, the EU's justice chief, Viviane Reding, said the lack of an independent data ombudsman in Hungary meant "a lowering of the level of data protection."
In Budapest, a spokeswoman for the justice ministry said the government would need to study the ruling before commenting further.
The commission and Orban have clashed several times in the past four years over legislation he has introduced, ranging from data protection to the independence of the central bank and the judiciary and pushing a reform programme that Brussels worries is at odds with the EU's democratic ideals as well as economically risky.
Orban's government has rejected the criticisms, pointing to a 2010 landslide which Budapest says gave it a democratic mandate to pass sweeping reforms. His policies have also included a nationalisation of private pension funds and a jump in taxes on big business.
But the European Union is divided over what to do about Hungary and signs that the former Soviet satellite is drifting back towards authoritarianism under Orban.
It has few tools to pressure countries straying from the democratic path, and the weekend election results suggest a decisive proportion of Hungary's voters either do not share its concerns or do not consider them a major issue.
Following the European Court of Justice ruling, Hungary should reinstate Jori, but his six-year term was due to end in September this year.
Any sanctions would take months to be approved by the Commission and the court, by which time Jori's term would have ended, making it difficult to punish Budapest.
To complicate matters further, all 28 EU countries are free to decide how they run their data protection watchdogs under EU law, making the sacking of Hungary's ombudsman in 2012 a one-off event that is again difficult to penalise.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by John Stonestreet)