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Originally published Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 10:50 AM

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Hungary rejects criticism of constitution changes

Rejecting criticism from the EU, the U.S. and human rights groups, Hungary's prime minister insisted Thursday that recent constitutional changes aren't threatening democracy and the rule of law in the Eastern European nation.

Associated Press

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BRUSSELS —

Rejecting criticism from the EU, the U.S. and human rights groups, Hungary's prime minister insisted Thursday that recent constitutional changes aren't threatening democracy and the rule of law in the Eastern European nation.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban said those concerns were wrong and the amendments to Hungary's constitution were in line with EU treaties.

"As far as I can see, we are talking about political opinions here," he said through an interpreter. "They cannot replace facts."

"Hungary's democratic institutions are strong enough to defend themselves," he added, speaking before a summit in Brussels of the EU's 27 national leaders.

Critics, however, fear that an amendment approved by Hungarian lawmakers on Monday weakens the country's constitutional court and undermines its democratic checks and balances.

Orban's conservative government holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, which it has used to push through a sweeping overhaul of the country's institutions and its constitution.

"We got a two-thirds majority because people trusted us with the job," Orban said.

Since 2010, Orban has battled often with the EU over attempts to increase his executive control, ranging from limiting the central bank's independence to curbing media freedom. His government has altered some legislation to comply with EU demands, but critics claim the changes were only superficial.

"The changes have undermined media freedom, limited judicial independence, and weakened the power of the constitutional court, which has been a key check on the executive," warned the rights group Human Rights Watch.

The European Commission, the EU's executive body, vowed this week to probe whether Hungary's new laws violate the bloc's values.

Many leaders were also critical. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Hungary's constitutional changes are cause for "great concern," especially for minorities.

"Europe is not only about the market and the currency, but it is also a community of values that we share - human rights, democracy," Rutte said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the bloc's biggest economy, welcomed the European Commission's announcement to probe the laws and stressed that Hungary's government must also protect the minorities' rights.

"One may not abuse a two-thirds majority, but has to proceed very carefully with it," she said.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz urged the bloc's leaders not to allow a member state to slide back on the EU's core principles.

"The European Union is a community of values," he said. "We cannot remain silent if a member state rides roughshod over them."

The amendment enshrines several government policies that had been struck down by the Constitutional Court over the past months. Those include allowing local authorities to fine or jail homeless people, banning political campaign ads on commercial radio and TV stations, and forcing university students who accept state scholarships to work in Hungary for years after their graduation.

Crucially, the amendment also limits the court's right to review constitutional amendments. That allows any government with a two-thirds majority - such as the one Orban's Fidesz party has with its Christian Democrat allies - to put whatever it wants into the constitution.

While the European Commission has sweeping monitoring and enforcement powers on many economic matters, the bloc's executive arm lacks authority if a member state changes its laws to curb the rule of law or democracy itself.

If the commission finds Hungary's amendment to violate the bloc's laws, it can put political pressure on the country and then launch a formal infringement procedure - although the hurdles for the latter are high and it is a slow process.

Several EU countries and leaders therefore proposed this month to create a new powerful watchdog mechanism to monitor legal compliance with the EU's fundamental values.

"No eyebrows are raised when the EU monitors economic developments in the member states, and it should be no different when it comes to monitoring compliance with fundamental values," Schulz said.

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AP writer Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed reporting.

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Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz

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