STRASBOURG, France - The European Union and Hungary brought their fight over democratic rights into the open yesterday, with the EU Commission launching legal challenges against the former Soviet-bloc country, which many fear may be slipping back toward authoritarianism.
The EU’s Executive Commission said the constitution that took effect Jan. 1 undermines the independence of the central bank and the judiciary and does not respect data privacy principles.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose grip on power has earned him the nickname “Viktator,’’ defied the criticism and invited himself to the EU parliament in Strasbourg to confront European detractors head on.
“We won’t allow the international left to accuse Hungary through lies and baseless slander,’’ his office said in a statement.
The EU Commission said it had found enough evidence to start legal proceedings, highlighting a general discomfort about Hungary, where critics fear creeping fallback to a centralized one-party rule under Orban’s Fidesz party.
“We do not want the shadow of doubt on respect for democratic principles and values to remain over the country any longer. The quicker that this is resolved the better,’’ said the president of the European Union Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.
In its initial reaction to the challenges, the Hungarian government struck a conciliatory tone.
“There is no disagreement with the institutions of the European Union on the importance of basic principles, common European values and achievements,’’ the statement said.
Hungary sought to sidestep the major political objections. Its minister of state for government communication, Zoltan Kovacs, said Hungary does not “think there is any room for a heated debate. This is a legal, technical issue.’’
Some accused the commission of being too timid in challenging Hungary and of missing the most important issues.
“By deciding to begin infringement procedures only on three specific issues that may breach European law, the commission has missed the broader picture,’’ said Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberal Alde Group.
“The case of Hungary is not just about technical breaches of EU legislation, but a wider concern of gradual but persistent erosion of EU values,’’ Verhofstadt said.
Orban has been under fire from the European Parliament and civil rights organizations.
They fear he could push the country back into authoritarianism by imposing government control over institutions whose independence is protected by EU treaties.
Kovacs said that there were “orchestrated efforts on behalf of political parties’’ to undermine the government of Orban, “unfortunately not only at a Hungarian, but on the European level as well.’’
The commission and the European Central Bank had been in touch with Hungarian authorities since mid-December, expressing doubts over aspects of the new constitution.
Beside the central bank law, which gives the government a much larger role than before in naming top bank officials, the EU is objecting to the forced early retirement of hundreds of judges and has concerns about the independence of the new data-protection authority.
“We had hoped that Hungary would have made the necessary changes,’’ Barroso said. “This has not been the case so far.’’