Commission pushes Hungary to implement NGO judgement among worries it is ‘too little too late’

Budapest, Hungary 12 April 2017. A protester holds a sign reading 'This is not good' as she joins a protest against the draft law on civil society organizations' transparency at the Parliament building at Kossuth Square. [EPA/Zoltan Balogh HUNGARY OUT]

Raising pressure on the Hungarian authorities to implement a June 2020 ruling of the EU top court, the European Commission notified Budapest it considers it to be in breach of the treaties. Critics welcomed the move but warned that the EU executive’s tardiness is worrying and only emboldens those who disrespect rule of law.

The Hungarian authorities will now have two months to respond.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck down last June a 2017 Hungarian law forcing civil society actors to register as ‘organisations in receipt of support from abroad’ if the amount of donations coming from outside the country reaches the threshold of about €22,000

However, the law is still on the books.

The European Commission’s values and transparency chief Věra Jourová said the ruling was clear, which is why the EU executive is taking steps to ensure compliance.

“Civil society organisations are an indispensable part of our democracies. We must support them, not fight them,” the Commission vice-president added.

Stefania Kapronczay, executive of director of the prominent civil rights watchdog Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) welcomed the decision “because more than half a year has passed since the European Union’s court ruling in the summer and the Hungarian government has not taken any steps to end the violation.”

“There are foundations that lost support after the verdict because they did not comply with the violating civil law,” she added.

A grant application for EU support filed by human rights NGO Cum Virtute Humanitatis Foundation under the Erasmus+ educational mobility programme was rejected by the national managing agency in September because the NGO did not register as a foreign-funded organisation under the law which the EU court had already branded as illegal in June.

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However, critics say that the tardiness of the EU’s move is worrying.

“It is never too late to do the right thing and legally react when judgments of the ECJ are deliberately violated,” Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University in London, told EURACTIV.

“However, we need the Commission to do so more promptly and in each single instance,” he said.

Hungary is yet to implement other rulings of the EU’s top court, including one from December last year, which said the Hungarian authorities’ practice of preventing people from seeking protection on their territory by forcibly returning them to Serbia, otherwise known as “pushbacks”, was illegal.

According to publicly available data from the Hungarian police, the border authorities have this year alone prevented “prohibited crossings” 4,808 times, and in 291 cases detained and escorted protection seekers across the border to Serbia.

The continued practice of border authorities forced the EU’s border agency, Frontex, to suspended all operations in Hungary last month.

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According to Pech, “not reacting to open violations of ECJ judgments and interim orders is the surest way to see the EU legal order unravelling. On this front, the current Commission is, I am afraid, guilty of constantly reacting in a ‘too little too late’ fashion when it reacts at all.”

“Let’s hope today’s decision to finally request from the ECJ financial sanctions for continuing non-compliance with its Lex NGO judgment is the start of a new period which will see the Commission enforcing EU law rather than losing itself in meaningless dialogue processes with bad faith autocrats,” he added.

Asked by the journalists if the damage done by the law since 2017 can be repaired, a Commission spokesperson said the EU executive “has done its job.”

“We launched an infringement, we have won this case before the European Court of Justice and now we’re ensuring that it is also respected,” he said.

Contacted by EURACTIV, the spokesperson for Hungary’s representation in Brussels said “as in all previous cases without any exception, the Hungarian government will perform all necessary measures to comply with the judgement of the European Court of Justice,” adding that there is an ongoing negotiation between Budapest and Brussels regarding the issue.

The Hungarian government maintains that its main objective is transparency and traceability of movements of capital intended for organisations which participate in public life.

“Transparency is a legitimate, democratic issue, such a European value, which is of utmost importance for all European Union Institutions, including the European Commission and the European Parliament as well,” the spokesperson said in emailed comments.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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