STRASBOURG, France — The European Commission on Tuesday launched legal challenges against Hungary's new constitution amid concerns that the former Soviet-bloc country may be slipping back into authoritarianism.
The Commission, the EU's executive, says aspects of the constitution violate EU laws on the independence of the national central bank and data protection agency and for reducing the retirement age of judges. It also requested more information from the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the broader independence of the judiciary.
"Hungary is a key member of the European family and we do not want a shadow of a doubt on the respect for of democratic principles and values," Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in Strasbourg. "The quicker that this is resolved, the better."
Orban has been under fire from the European Parliament and civil rights organizations that fear he could push the country back into authoritarianism, by imposing government control over institutions whose independence is protected by EU treaties.
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 that came into force in early January.
Beside the central bank law, which gives the government as 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."
As part of its so-called infringement procedure, the Commission will send three formal letters to the Hungarian government already this Tuesday, spelling out its legal issues with the new laws.
Budapest then has until Feb. 17 to respond to the letters, after which the Commission will take around two months to analyze the responses.
If Hungary ignores further requests for changes, the Commission can take it to the European Court of Justice and levy fines, although that process could drag on for much of this year.
But the EU also has a quicker way of exerting pressure on Orban's government. Hungary has requested financial help from the EU and the International Monetary Fund and both institutions have said they won't begin aid talks until the independence of the Hungarian central bank has been ensured.
Orban will be in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament is meeting on Wednesday to address his critics. He will meet Barroso in Brussels next Tuesday.