In case you had
not noticed, Hungary has a whopper of a new constitution that is giving the
European Union and other international organizations something to think (and
gripe) about. Critics call the text’s reference to Christian heritage and its
emphasis on strong families a dangerous blast from the past. A debate in the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament has been scheduled for next week and it promises to be quite acrimonious. 

But Hungary’s
popular ruling parties, who famously drafted most of the document on an iPad,
are convinced they are moving forward from the outdated, self-centered
secularist ideologies that – look around! they say – are leading societies to a
cultural, demographic and economic dead end. The future, if there is to be one,
lies in promoting human dignity and economic responsibility.

“Hungary can be
said to have rejected the post-modern model of society,” the Strasbourg-based
European Centre for Law and Justice wrote last week in a memorandum
on the new Hungarian Constitution. The Central European nation is not alone,
the report notes, in distancing itself from the relativistic, anti-Christian
and anti-family ideas that have come to dominate European policymaking in
recent decades, but which conflict with many people’s understanding of human
rights, social welfare and national identity.

The Parliament in
Budapest adopted the new Fundamental
Law of Hungary
on April 18 by a vote of 262 to 44. President Pal
Schmitt endorsed it a week later to take effect from the start of 2012.

After a preamble
that proudly “acknowledges the role that Christianity has played in preserving
our nation”, the constitution proceeds, among other things, to declare human
life worthy of protection from the moment of conception, define marriage as the
union of a man and a woman, urge protection of the institution of the family
“as the basis for survival of the nation”, prohibit “practices aimed at
eugenics”, ban human trafficking, espouse protection of the environment and
biodiversity, and set strict limits on the level of the national debt.


Ideology and democracy

Not everyone is
edified or convinced by this act of moral leadership on the part of the country
currently holding the EU’s rotating presidency. Amnesty International expressed
deep concern that the new Hungarian Constitution “violates international and
European human rights standards”, in particular, “the rights of women and
girls” to have abortions, the rights of same-sex couples “to marry” and “found
a family”, and the rights of lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transvestites to be
explicitly named in constitutional bans on discrimination. The rights group’s
four-page statement only dedicates a couple of sentences to concerns about one
provision not linked to gender or sex — Hungarian courts would be allowed to give
non-parole life sentences for some prisoners.

These and other
complaints have also been voiced within some EU institutions, especially by
members of the European Parliament. The Council of Europe last month sent
experts to Budapest to explore details of the constitution and prepare a report
for the body’s Parliamentary Assembly in June. Some question the legitimacy of
the process by which the Fundamental Law was drafted. Prime Minister Viktor
Orban’s center-right Fidesz party and its coalition partners, the Christian
Democrats, hold a two-thirds majority in parliament, which allowed them to
adopt the constitution without any opposition support. Critics accuse the government
of an authoritarian bent, especially in light of a media law it promoted which
is seen by many as overly restrictive. The new constitution is one more example
of this trend, they say. There are also claims that the government’s patriotic
rhetoric masks nationalistic intentions and that it is lax about protecting
minorities like the Roma and migrants.

In an assessment
earlier this month of developments in Hungary the Population Research
Institute, a US-based human rights research group, takes note of the potential
civil liberties issues but concludes that “while the new constitution may not
be perfect, it is the best on the European continent right now.”

The government,
for its part, says its massive election victory in April 2010 was a mandate for
radical action to purge Hungarian society from remaining communist-era
influences, reclaim the country’s historical identity and values, and complete
its transition to a modern democracy. And indeed, voters seem satisfied. The latest
poll
projects the ruling alliance would get 56 percent of the vote
support if elections were held now, enough to retain its two-thirds majority in
parliament. A distant second place, with just 18 percent of votes, would go to
the Socialist Party. More than a third of respondents in the survey named Orban
as Hungary’s best prime minister since the end of communism in 1990, expressing
particular satisfaction with his ability to defend Hungary’s interests in the
European arena.


Not alone

In fact, many
European countries seem increasingly keen to defend their own identity, values
and interests against “post-modern” impositions by international institutions
and lobby groups. MercatorNet
wrote in 2009 about a new Lithuanian
law
prohibiting public dissemination of information aimed at
promoting non-heterosexual relations. The European Parliament condemned the law
as discriminatory and proposed sanctions. Lithuania appealed to the European
Court of Justice, which ultimately agreed that the European Parliament had
overstepped the bounds of its competence and intruded into a democratic
country’s legislative sovereignty.

Several recent
cases at the European Court of Human Rights are also quite illustrative. An
obvious example is the Italian crucifix case (Lautsi v.
Italy
), in which 21 European states backed Italy’s ultimately
prevailing stand that the display of crucifixes in public schools does not
violate anyone’s human rights. In a June 2010  ruling,
the Court upheld Austria’s right “to restrict access to marriage to
different-sex couples”. In December 2010, it refused
to overrule restrictions on abortions in Ireland. In January of this year, the
Court judged
that Switzerland did not have to ensure that a sick person wishing to commit
suicide could obtain a lethal substance to be able to end his life without
pain. Currently the Court is preparing to
rule
on whether Austria can legitimately ban ova donation by third
parties for use in artificial insemination. And in another pending case,
Poland is fighting a demand that it guarantee prenatal screening at a mother’s
request for purposes of deciding whether or not to have an abortion.

Through such legal
challenges, countries are forcing a return to reasoned argumentation and
universal principles of law, rather than ideological rhetoric as the basis for
social policies. In consequence, both national and international institutions
gradually are recognizing, as the European Centre for Law and Justice puts it,
that “secularism is one ‘belief’ among many and… is not the obligatory
pattern of the future Europe,” and – as more broadly evidenced by Hungary’s new
Constitution – that “the postmodern model of society is no longer compulsory in
Europe.”


Bryan P. Bradley is an American-born freelance writer based in Vilnius,
Lithuania, where he has lived and worked since 1994. He has reported on economic,
political and cultural issues in the Baltic region for a number of
international news agencies, including Bloomberg and Reuters.