EU grills Hungary over rule of law concerns

Irish Minister of State for European Affairs, Helen McEntee (C) and Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders (L) during the European General Affairs Council in Brussels, Belgium, 16 September 2019. The meeting focused on rule of law in Poland and Hungary. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

EU affairs ministers grilled Hungary on Monday (16 September) over Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s tightening of restrictions around free media, judges, academics, minorities and rights groups, which the bloc worries weakens democracy in the ex-communist country.

A year after the European Parliament issued a resolution that stated Orban’s actions carried “a clear risk of a serious breach” of core EU values, ministers met in Brussels for a first formal hearing on Hungary.

“The EU is like a family in many regards. And in a family there has to be a common set of rules… otherwise it cannot work. And rule of law is a foundation of that,” said Austria’s EU affairs minister Alexander Schallenberg.

Orban, in power since 2010, has also angered the EU with his harsh anti-immigration stance and crude campaigns against the bloc with anti-Semitic undertones.

But, widely seen as a Machiavellian and shrewd operator, he has mostly escaped punishment beyond being suspended from the bloc’s biggest centre-right parliamentary group.

The bloc is, however, seeking to make its generous assistance to poorer members like Hungary and Poland – where Orban’s fellow nationalists have also put media and judges under more state control – conditional on upholding the rule of law.

The hearing was part of a prominent probe by the bloc against Hungary over flouting of the rule of law, the so-called Article 7 investigation, which could lead to the suspension of Budapest’s EU voting rights if all other capitals agreed.

But, offering Budapest a clear lifeline, Poland’s EU minister Konrad Szymanski said after the session that Warsaw did not believe Orban’s policies constituted any systemic risk for democratic standards.

“Unfortunate chapter”

Others stressed that Budapest would not be let off the hook.

Tytti Tuppurainen, the Finnish Minister for EU Affairs and representing the Finnish presidency of the EU council of ministers, said Monday was just the first hearing for Hungary that “it will be up to the next weeks and months for us to decide how we will move forward,” adding that the ministers were keeping their options under Article 7 sanctions alive.

“Without respect for the rule of law there is no EU. This is the very foundation on which the EU was biult,” said Frans Timmermans, who has led the probes by the bloc’s executive European Commission both against Hungary and Poland.

Speaking for both Paris and Berlin, French EU minister said the situation in Hungary was “worrying”.

“When we speak of the independence of judges, the freedom of the media, when we speak of the protection of minorities, academic freedom… it reminds us of our identity, of our values,” said Amelie de Montchalin.

With eurosceptic and nationalist politicians in several EU countries riding a wave of public discontent perpetuated by sluggish economies, anxiety over globalisation and immigration to Europe, the bloc is seeking to step up democratic defences.

“Once again, we are put on pillory for rejecting mass immigration. However, the facts are on our side. We protect Hungary!”, the Hungary’s Justice Minister, Judith Varga, said just ahead of the hearing, rejecting the bloc’s criticism.

“To deny the community of values with a member state only because of different positions in certain issues related to EU politics and policies would create a dangerous precedent and would question the very foundations of European integration,” Varga said after the session.

“It is in the interest of the EU as a whole to close this unfortunate chapter and focus on the vast challenges that are in front of us.”

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