Viktor Orbán’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, made a double announcement recently. First, he said, the government would postpone the establishment of a new administrative court system that analysts said would threaten judicial independence. Second, he said that Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party would not join Italian Lega party leader Matteo Salvini’s alliance at the European Parliament and instead would seek to stay in the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) group.
Apologists for Hungary’s government might like you to believe that these actions show that Orbán and Fidesz have changed their spots. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The flouting of European values that led to the Fidesz’s suspension from the EPP in March has not changed. What has changed is that the outcome of the elections has made Fidesz realise that it needs to stay in the EPP.
That is not to say Fidesz’ retreat on the court isn’t good news, even if it is for the wrong reasons. Orbán had good reason to assume that EU leaders would contest its effort to undermine court independence. This court system would have handled cases directly affecting basic rights, such as elections, asylum, right to assembly, and complaints of police abuse, as well as public procurement and corruption cases. Appointments and promotions of judges would rest with the Justice Minister, allowing for political interference with the courts.
But the Hungarian government’s balance sheet on the rule of law and democratic institutions remains deeply in the red. Laws passed by the Fidesz-led parliament have put freedom of association and the work of civil society at risk. A 2017 law requires non-governmental organizations receiving international funding to register as “foreign-funded” – a provision inspired by Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent’ Law. A 2018 bill criminalised providing aid to migrants and asylum seekers. Yet another 2018 bill placed a 25% surtax on organisations promoting migration.
Hungary’s media landscape is now largely controlled by Orbán and his government. The decision in December to allow the merger of more than 400 media into one conglomerate loyal to the government put an end to media pluralism in the country. The few existing independent investigative outlets do good work but have limited reach.
Pro-government media routinely target civil society, independent journalists, and critics. Academic freedom is also under threat; last year, the government forced the Central European University out of the country and banned gender studies. Last week, the government decided to take over the assets of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Science.
Orbán’s about turn on an alliance with Salvini puts even greater responsibility on the EPP. On 20 March, when Fidesz was suspended, the EPP tacitly admitted that Orbán had stopped adhering to the party’s own principles. As a follow up, it set up an evaluation committee whose report should guide the EPP on whether Fidesz stays or gets expelled. Hopefully, the committee members and their chair, former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, will fully appreciate the impact of Fidesz’ policies: an erosion of the democratic debate, hate-driven propaganda, and severe attacks on EU values and rights.
Whatever the EPP decides, European institutions have a responsibility to keep up the pressure on Budapest to end its attacks on democratic institutions and respect EU values.
Last September, the European Parliament initiated scrutiny over the Hungarian government’s conflicts with rule of law and human rights. The new Parliament should continue that scrutiny. The European Commission has also done its job by opening legal proceedings for failure to abide by EU law. But it is now up to EU member states to hold the Fidesz government accountable for actions that violate fundamental EU values under Article 7 of the EU Treaty.
European Affairs Ministers should challenge the Hungarian government’s disregard of core EU principles. As the General Affairs Council of the EU, they should hold a formal hearing on the situation in Hungary in the context of the Article 7 proceedings as soon as possible - and do the same for Poland. Making that happen should be a priority for Finland, which takes over the rotating presidency of the Council on 1 July.
While the radical right populists fared less well in European elections than some feared, their steady growth continues. The protection of the rule of law was a key commitment made by mainstream political parties during the European campaign. It’s vital for EU leaders and institutions to send a clear message that it will act when EU values come under threat.
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