By RAF CASERT and PABLO GORONDI
BRUSSELS (AP) - Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban clashed Tuesday with his critics in the European Union's parliament over his government's perceived democratic failings.
On the eve of a vote on a critical report on the way his parliamentary majority runs Hungary, Orban came over especially from Budapest to the legislature in Strasbourg, France, to defend his policies and to urge the EU not to meddle in Hungary's internal affairs.
Beyond the principles of democracy, the protracted session turned into a fundamental debate on the limits of national sovereignty and the duty of the EU to step in if it perceives there is a risk fundamental rights are under threat in any of its 28 member nations.
For Orban, the answer was clear.
He insisted that he and his Fidesz party "don't want a Europe where the unity expressed by the two-thirds majority is condemned instead of respected."
The EU parliamentary report up for vote on Wednesday backed many of the complaints heard since Orban swept to power in 2010, specifically on the respect for minorities and for democratic principles in the judiciary and freedom of expression.
It made for a raucous debate, in which Orban staunchly denied Hungary was veering off the path of democracy despite a change in some laws that his critics say has impacted on fundamental freedoms.
"This report is deeply unjust toward Hungary and the people of Hungary," Orban said. "It openly applies double standards, does not recognize, undervalues and downgrades the huge work with which Hungarians have renewed their country."
Others though, criticized the report for not going far enough to demand more supervision of the politics in a member state.
"We ought to stand firm in protecting the basic principles of the European Union," said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal ALDE group. "How much more evidence do we need before recognizing that in Hungary there is a risk of serious breach of European fundamental values?"
Last month legal experts from the Council of Europe, the continent's biggest human rights watchdog said that Hungary's constitutional changes under Orban endanger the system of checks and balances. However, it backed off more scathing language after Hungary made some concessions.
The contested measures include strict limits on the definition of family that discriminates against gays, criminalization of the homeless and limits on political advertisements that the constitutional court has already said harms the principle of free speech.
While Hungary has pledged to change parts of the recent constitutional amendment which the EU found objectionable, the government still dismisses most criticism from the EU as politically and economically motivated.
Most of the special taxes introduced by the Orban government since 2010, including those on banks, the telecommunications sector, retailers and gas and electricity companies, affect mainly foreign-owned companies. Orban claims the complaints in Brussels are aimed at pressuring Hungary into changing its economic policies.
On Tuesday, Orban accused the EU of double standards in judging Hungary and berated it for failing to recognize the government's economic achievements, including falling unemployment and a growing economy.
While Hungary has achieved success in some key economic indicators, it has come at a high cost. At 27 percent, Hungary has the EU's highest sales tax. It has also nationalized over $14 billion of assets previously managed by private pension funds and foreign investment has fallen sharply due to the government's habit of changing laws quickly and without consultation.
Pablo Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary.
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