The European Commission has launched infringement measures against Hungary over concerns that binding data protection rules are being undermined.
The news comes just days before the Commission's long-awaited reform proposals on the Data Protection Directive, due to be presented by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding next week.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso made the announcement on Tuesday saying that there were three areas of concern in the Hungarian government's new constitution: the independence of the national central bank, the retirement age of judges and the independence of the data protection authority.
"Hungary, like all member states, is obliged by the EU treaties to guarantee the independence of its Data Protection Authority. The Commission is determined to take any legal steps necessary to ensure that the compatibility with European Union legislation is maintained," said Barroso.
Reding, the commissioner responsible for data protection, said: "I have already raised serious legal concerns regarding potential violations of the independence of Hungary's judiciary and the Hungarian data protection authority when I first saw drafts of laws in early December. Now that the laws have been passed without taking into account the Commission's legal concerns, it is the Commission's responsibility to ensure that EU law is upheld."
The new Hungarian Constitution, which became law on January 1, creates a National Agency for Data Protection, in place of the former Data Protection Commissioner's Office, prematurely ending the six year term of the Data Protection Commissioner with no interim measures put in place. The new rules allow the prime minister and president to appoint or dismiss any new supervisor on arbitrary grounds.
The independence of data protection supervisors is guaranteed under Article 16 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, while the current Data Protection Directive requires member states to appoint a completely independent supervisory body to monitor data protection in that country.
In 2010 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the mere risk of political influence through state scrutiny is sufficient to hinder the independent performance of the supervisory authority's tasks.
Barroso is to meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Brussels next Tuesday to discuss the issue. Around 95 percent of infringement cases are resolved before being referred to the ECJ.