Commission to consider minor penalties against ‘illiberal’ Hungary

Commission Chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas [L] and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans face the press on 12 April. [European Commission]

The European Commission said today (12 April) it will decide by the end of the month on the possibility of launching infringement procedures against Hungary, stopping short of mentioning heavier punishments.

On the initiative of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU executive held a “first debate” today to discuss recent developments in Hungary. Last Thursday (7 April) Juncker said that he did not like the push to close the Central European University, founded by George Soros, and commented on the “Let’s Stop Brussels” initiative of the Hungarian government.

Juncker speaks out on Hungary’s illiberal drift

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the “illiberal” drift in Hungary, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said today (6 April) that he did not like the push to close the Central European University, founded by George Soros, and commented on the “Let’s Stop Brussels” initiative.

Appearing in front of the press after the College meeting, Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that the EU executive will make decisions concerning the points discussed later this month when it will announce its new infringement procedures.

Apart from the university, he said the draft law on the foreign funding of non-governmental organisations, which is expected to be approved by mid-May, was on the Commission’s radar screen. Critics say the initiative is part of a wider crackdown on liberal democratic values by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that seeks to stigmatise the organisations and their members.

Timmermans also mentioned the recent asylum law, which allows for the automatic detention of all asylum-seekers in container camps at Hungary’s borders, and discrimination against Roma children in schools.

Hungary decides to detain asylum-seekers in 'container camps'

Hungary’s parliament today (7 March) approved the automatic detention of all asylum-seekers in container camps at its borders, sparking “deep concern” at the UN’s refugee agency.

The First Vice-President said that the Commission will prepare its own response to the “Stop Brussels” questionnaire and make it public.

Regarding the CEU, the legal analysis regarding compatibility with EU law would be completed as soon as possible and the college would consider legal steps by the end of April, Timmermans said.

He mentioned several times Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, which states that the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

Timmermans didn’t, however, once mention Article 7, often referred to as “the nuclear bomb” in terms of punishment for breaching those values.

EPP warns Budapest with Article 7 'nuclear option'

EXCLUSIVE / If the democratic drift in Hungary continues, the European Union may consider placing Budapest under the Article 7 procedure of the EU Treaty, which provides for sanctions against a member state, a spokesperson from the European People’s Party (EPP) warned.

The Dutch Commissioner said however that the executive would use “all instruments” at its disposal to uphold the values on which the EU is based upon.

The First Vice-President responded negatively when he was asked if this means that the Commission is initiating the “rule of law” mechanism, which is being applied to Poland. He also responded negatively when he was asked if Hungary posed a “systemic threat” to the foundations on which the EU is based. This morning the former Hungarian Commissioner László Andor said that it was wrong to say there is no systemic problem in Hungary, with the quality of democracy and the rule of law.

This morning, the former Hungarian Commissioner, László Andor, said that it was wrong to say there is no systemic problem in Hungary with the quality of democracy and the rule of law.

László Andor: There is a systemic problem in Hungary

EXCLUSIVE/ EURACTIV spoke with the former Hungarian Commissioner László Andor this morning (12 April) just before the EU executive gathered to discuss the “illiberal drift” in his country.

Timmermans said that unlike the Polish government, which refused dialogue with the Commission, the Hungarian government “always accepted” the need to remain in dialogue.

He added that the European Parliament was also going to be engaged in the debate on Hungary and expressed the wish that the Council, where member states sit, would do the same.

Asked by if he accepted the concept of “illiberal democracy” and if there wasn’t a risk that it could spread across the EU, Timmermans said political and cultural differences existed among all member states.

The Commissioner admitted that the vision of an open society was under threat, and that some politicians believed they could better defend their interests by excluding others (he stopped short of mentioning the Visegrád group). But, he insisted, such a position could never win.

“Sometimes they have wind in their sails. But I think the time has come (for) that wind to go in other sails. I see young people across Europe standing up for Europe. Because they understand that their rights are self-evident, but not self-executing. […] I see the big silent majority of Europeans who believe in European cooperation cooperation finally finding their voice. So I’m rather optimistic about this. Illiberalism is there, it is an important political factor in our member states, and also outside of Europe. But it will not carry the day.”

Timmerman’s failure to condemn Hungarian clampdown on academic institutions is “extremely disappointing”, MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, ALDE group First Vice President stated today.

"80,000 people took to the streets of Budapest last Sunday to protest against Orban’s illiberal crackdown on academic freedom and to call for solidarity from the European Union- it is extremely disappointing that all the European Commission can do in return is shrug their shoulders.  It is impressive that Mr Timmermans can give a press conference in response to one of the boldest assaults on European values we face without really saying anything. A condemnation would have been nice. ”

“It is the Commission's task to be the guardian of the Treaties, if it does not do that, who will? If countries can unilaterally decide whether to respect European values of liberal democracy, it is the end of the European project as we know it. It’s time the European Commission’s so-called political dialogue moves to a rule of law dialogue. "

S&D Group President Gianni Pittella welcomed the statement from the European Commission that they will begin a political dialogue with the Hungarian government about the deteriorating political situation in the country. However, this means little unless the Commission is prepared to back this dialogue up with the threat of sanctions. The Group also reiterated its call for Fidesz to be removed from the centre right EPP Group.

He said:

“Last week we called on the European Commission to take action and today they have done that. We welcome the decision of the European Commission to start a political dialogue with the Hungarian government. However, this is only a first step, once the assessment has been completed the Commission must be prepared to use sanctions and concrete measures against Orbán if he does not change course.

“The decision of the Hungarian government to effectively close the respected Central European University is the latest in a long series of violation and breaches of EU values. Looking at the widespread protests in Hungary today it appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. We are with all those standing up to Orbán’s corrupt and illiberal regime.

“Orban's membership of the EPP Group makes a mockery of their claim to stand for European values. As fellow pro-Europeans we urge them to finally stand up for the EU and kick Orbán and his cronies out.”


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