During a debate on the rule of law in Hungary on 30 January in Brussels, several MEPs called on the Romanian presidency of the EU to put Hungary back on the agenda of the Council of member states. They have also called on EU member states to discipline Hungary’s government, which is led by nationalist and populist prime minister Viktor Orban. Hungary featured on the agenda of the council of EU affairs ministers under the Austrian presidency of the EU, but the current Romanian one has so far kept quiet about what it plans as a next step.
“I am surprised that the council still has not taken serious steps, it is not possible that a member state moves further away from common values, and simply accepting that would mean abandoning the common European project,” Josef Weidenholzer, an Austrian MEP from the Socialists and Democrats, said.
Last September, the European parliament voted to sanction Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption in an unprecedented step. The parliament also adopted a report on the decline of Hungary’s rule of law and democracy and triggered the so-called Article 7 procedure, which calls for EU member states to check if the country in question breached EU values and fundamental rights.
Ingeborg Grassle, a German MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party of which Orban’s Fidesz is also a member, said Hungary “has a problem with fraud, with corruption, with public tendering and with the fact that the justice system doesn’t want to deal with crimes, perhaps because there are people protecting the criminals there”.
Hungary was sanctioned after adopting a new constitution without the consent of the opposition and reports that pressure was being put on the courts and the electoral system and of widespread corruption. After the vote to introduce sanctions, the European Parliament said it was also concerned about privacy and data protection, freedom of expression and religion as well as academic freedom and freedom of association
NGOs have been strangled through the implementation of the so-called “Stop Soros” legislation, which criminalises activities of organisations that support asylum and residence applications and further restrict asylum requests. The legislation also targets NGOs critical of the government’s hardline anti-migration policies.
In 2017, the Orban government party tightened regulations on foreign-funded NGOs, requiring them to register with authorities and publicly declare their foreign-funded status. The government said it wanted to ensure greater transparency, but NGOs said the change stigmatised them.
Groups under attack in Hungary have urged the EU to set up a fund geared towards NGOs that are protecting European values in member states, a so-called “European Values Instrument” that would support civil society groups that are promoting democracy, human rights and rule of law.
Amnesty International said in a statement that the Hungarian laws are a “vicious and calculated assault on civil society”, while Human Rights Watch has called it an attempt of “silencing critical voices in society”.
The merger of more than 400 media outlets under one media holding whose board is government-affiliated has also sparked concern, given that the move was exempted from scrutiny by the national competition and media authorities.
The European Commission is currently looking into the legislation on overtime adopted in December, dubbed a “slave law” by the Hungarian opposition and which sparked street protests in Hungary for significantly increasing overtime for employees.