Commission to debate Hungary’s ‘illiberal’ drift on 12 April

Frans Timmermans [European Commission]

The Juncker Commission will hold a “first debate” over the drift towards ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary at its next meeting on Wednesday (12 April), with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans making a presentation.

The announcement was made today (5 April) by Alexander Winterstein, the executive’s deputy chief spokesperson, answering a question about its reaction following the adoption of a law which is likely to lead to the closure of the Central European University (CEU), the prestigious Budapest school founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

Hungary passes bill targeting Soros university, sparking protests

Hungarian lawmakers yesterday (4 April) approved legislation that could force the closure of a prestigious Budapest university founded by US billionaire investor George Soros, sparking fresh protests.

The debate will be preceded by a presentation of Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, whose portfolio includes responsibility for the Rule of Law and Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Timmermans is currently overseeing a “rule of law” procedure against Poland. In fact, he was not successful in taking Warsaw to task precisely because the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán backs the Eurosceptic Polish government.

With Hungarian support, Poland defies EU over rule of law

Poland dismissed on Monday (20 February) demands that it implement judiciary reforms deemed essential by the European Commission to uphold the rule of law.

The European Peoples’ Party (EPP) to which Orbán’s Fidesz party belongs has so far shielded him from punitive procedures and even from criticism. The ruling Polish party PiS is affiliated to the conservative and eurosceptic ECR group.

The European Commission is analysing the law, Winterstein said, although its content was known in advance. The new rules ban institutions outside the Union from awarding Hungarian diplomas without an agreement between national governments. They will also be required to have a campus and faculties in their home country – conditions not met by the CEU.

EURACTIV.com asked Margrethe Vestager, the Commissioner for Competition, what she thought about Hungary’s illiberal and anti-European drift, part of it being an initiative called “Let’s stop Brussels.”

Commission unmoved by Orbán’s ‘Stop Europe’ initiative

Hungary launched an initiative called “Let’s stop Brussels” shortly after its prime minister returned from the Rome summit. Asked about it today (4 April), the Commission highlighted the fact that Viktor Orbán had signed the strongly pro-European text only days before.

Questionnaires bearing the title “Let’s stop Brussels!” have been arriving in Hungarian letterboxes, after the initiative was launched on 1 April, only days after leaders gathered in Rome to mark the EU’s 60th anniversary.

Vestager said that in the case of the CEU, her colleagues who have direct responsibility were “very preoccupied” with the case, and that she had a “second hand knowledge”, so she would not venture further.

“That being said, being both a national citizen and a European citizen, one of my obvious concerns is that this seems to be questioned more, more and more.”

Vestager said she has been conscious of the benefits of the EU serving the Danish government. The Commissioner served as minister of Economic Affairs and the Interior from 2011 to 2014, representing the Danish Social Liberal Party (Radikale Venstre), which is ALDE-affiliated.

“Obviously I worry when I see nationalist tendencies and countries sort of reverting to themselves. A number of things we are dealing with in Europe, they would be very difficult if not impossible to address if you were a stand-alone state,” she said.

She referred to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said in the European Parliament yesterday in Strasbourg (4 March) that the same applied even to the EU’s largest country, a point she said she completely shared.

Positions