European Parliament Ups Pressure for Action on Hungary

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People protest in Heroes’ square against a new law that would undermine Central European University, a liberal graduate school of social sciences founded by U.S. financier George Soros in Budapest, Hungary, April 12, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

“Hungary is no longer a democracy.” That’s the key phrase in the European Parliament’s decision today to call for greater action on Hungary’s democratic backslide.

Exactly four years after the European Parliament triggered the EU treaty’s Article 7 procedure on Hungary, which allows the bloc to handle governments at odds with the EU’s founding values, today’s report should be a wake-up call that other EU institutions have largely failed to act.

In those four years, Hungary’s authorities have abused judicial appointment rules in order to nominate supporters, used the Covid-19 pandemic and now the war in Ukraine to justify executive power-grabs, and criminalized the country’s civil society, subjecting organizations to intrusive scrutiny and public smears. Pressure on independent media, risks of state surveillance, and increasing concentration also threaten media pluralism and independence. And this week, the government severely restricted access to abortion, issuing a decree forcing people to hear the heartbeat of the fetus before obtaining an abortion.

The government has also crushed academic freedom. Last year, an ominous law restricted access to publications or broadcasts on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues: a major blow to nondiscrimination and free speech. And Viktor Orbán’s increasingly racist rhetoric about “mixed races” recently triggered an international uproar.

Orbán has crossed many lines, but has faced little or no real consequences. Despite bringing Hungary before the EU Court on important cases, the EU Commission has done little to ensure Budapest complies with court rulings. It has dragged its feet on the use of rule-of-law conditionality for access to EU money. EU member states have regularly debated the situation in Hungary but have failed to advance Article 7 proceedings.

The European Parliament’s report rightly slams the Council and the Commission for their inaction. EU Commission chief Ursula Von Der Leyen should back the Parliament’s calls to progress the Article 7 procedure, and the Commission should suspend some EU funding when media and civil society cannot operate. Budapest’s flimsy proposals for an anti-corruption authority should not end EU scrutiny on the situation.

EU member states should take their responsibility under Article 7 seriously and adopt time-bound rule-of-law recommendations and vote to determine EU values are at serious risk in Hungary.

If the EU wants to be credible in defending democracy in Ukraine and elsewhere, it should show its own members are held to the highest standards.

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