EU Needs to Hold Hungary to Account

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Protesters attend a rally against the Hungarian government’s clampdown on civil society in Budapest, Hungary, May 21, 2017.
© 2017 Reuters/Laszlo Balogh

On Monday, EU ministers will discuss, for the fourth time, the systematic breakdown of the rule of law in Hungary. This scrutiny, under the process laid out in article 7(1) of the founding treaty of the EU, has been slow and lackluster. Meanwhile, fundamental rights continue to deteriorate in Hungary as its autocratic government entrenches power and jeopardizes the EU bloc’s unity.

This hearing is the first since FIDESZ, the right-wing populist party, won its fourth successive term when re-elected in April under the leadership of Viktor Orbán. The party won a landslide victory, in a contest where information was dominated by the government, leading the OSCE’s election observation mission to conclude the elections were “marred by the absence of a level playing field.”

The article 7(1) process, which could ultimately lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights, involves a structured discussion and timetable for recommendations. To date, four years after triggering the process, no recommendations have been tabled. This hearing needs to lead to a concrete plan and deadline for recommendations.

In previous years, the EU has also used other instruments in its toolbox, but not to their full potential.

The Commission has also launched, for the first time, rights-based legal actions against the Hungarian government. This led to precedent setting judgments from the EU’s Court of Justice on freedom of association and academic freedom. But the Commission’s failure to ask the court to accelerate procedures and demand a halt of violations has meant that irreversible harm was done. Hungary also failed to adequately implement the judgments, and the court has imposed fines on just one case. Currently, only two new cases – on media freedom and free expression related to LGTBQI rights – have completed the pre-litigation phase, but the Commission has delayed in referring them to the court.

After a long delay, and following a legal challenge by Hungary and Poland, the newly-created Rule of Law Conditionality Mechanism was eventually activated against Hungary on April 27. The mechanism is designed to protect the EU budget against corruption and use of funds amid rule of law violations, but it won’t address wider state capture of public funds. Used with diligence and in conjunction with the other tools, it has the potential to push Hungary to enact reforms.

The time for hesitant half measures is over. To ensure genuine reforms and a reopening of spaces for independent civic engagement, a bold, concerted, and timebound approach is needed.

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