STRASBOURG, France — Hungary plans to change parts of its legislation that has prompted EU threats of court action and sparked Western fears about democratic rights, a top European official said Wednesday, but the promise did nothing to appease critics.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he received a letter from Prime Minister Viktor Orban early Wednesday in which the Hungarian leader indicated "his intention to modify the relevant legislation and to work with the Commission" on technical complaints centering on the independence of the central bank, the judiciary and data protection.
After a heated three-hour debate at the EU parliament Wednesday, Orban said Barroso's complaints about the central bank were "not a matter of life or death for us. If the commission believes this is problematic then we have no problem."
The letter was sent only hours before Orban faced stinging criticism from the European Parliament and a day after the Commission, the European Union's executive, threatened to take Budapest to court over some of its new laws.
"We are willing to factor in the European Commission position," Orban said of the criticism of the judiciary.
Throughout the afternoon, Orban focussed on narrow technical issues and sidestepped sweeping criticism from almost everyone but his EPP party in the legislature.
"We have all these problems. The euro crisis, the financial crisis. Is it really the most important issue whether the governor of Hungary's central bank is sworn in and takes an oath on the Hungarian constitution," he said on one remaining irritant.
But beyond European legislators, Orban has been under fire from civil rights organizations and the West, who fear he could push the country back into authoritarianism by imposing government control over institutions whose independence is protected by EU treaties. Critics accuse the government of ramming through a new constitution aimed at remaking Hungary on conservative Christian values.
Orban had invited himself to the European Parliament in a rare and bold move, even winning plaudits from some of his critics for his effort to come and take it on the chin.
"We are telling you that you are going in the direction of Mr. Chavez, Mr. Castro and all of those totalitarian and authoritarian governments," Green leader Dany Cohn-Bendit said in reference to the strongmen of Venezuela and Cuba.
Orban has insisted that the new constitution is based on the core principles of the EU but acknowledged that questions over the independence of the central bank and the judiciary are understandable.
Barroso did not give specifics on what the changes would be. The Hungarian leader was met with widespread derision as he sought to convince the legislature that the new constitution and laws were necessary to get closer to European democratic principles.
Orban said he expected to find a solution soon to the EU Commission's legal challenges, well before they would reach the stage of going to court.
"We are talking about a restructuring of enormous scope," Orban said. The Hungarian leader will meet Barroso next Tuesday in Brussels to further discuss the laws.
The EU initiatives underscore an overall discomfort about Hungary, where critics fear a creeping fallback to a centralized one-party rule under Orban's Fidesz party.