The General Affairs Council held a thematic hearing on Tuesday (10 December) on the ongoing Article 7 procedure against Hungary, tackling the alleged breaches of judicial independence, academic freedom and freedom of expression, particularly media freedom.
While no concrete steps were adopted, the Council’s Finnish presidency that made rule of law its priority was satisfied with the discussion.
“I think today’s work on the rule of law issue shows that there is the necessary commitment and that is good news for the future work,” said Tytti Tuppurainen, the presiding Finnish European affairs minister.
A diplomatic incident ensued when Zoltán Kovács, state secretary for international communication and relations, broke Council rules by tweeting from inside the closed hearing.
One of his tweets depicted the Council building where EU summits are held, with the text “The Soros orchestra is about ready to take the stage”. The EU summit will be held on Thursday and Friday. He later deleted the image.
— Zoltan Kovacs (@zoltanspox) December 10, 2019
Tuppurainen, representing the presiding Finnish delegation asked Hungary to provide “written clarifications” for the incident. Kovács reportedly had already left the room at that point.
The Hungarian permanent representation has not replied to our request for comments at the time of publishing.
“And it’s not only that it [the hearing] was not public, these kind of discussions are treaty-based confidential,” Tuppurainen told the reporters. “I asked the Council legal service, and they showed me the particular place in the treaties that was breached, so this is a really serious matter.”
The situation was aggravated by Kovács’s long thread of comments on social media that accused the participants of the Council hearings to be members of the “Soros orchestra,” after US billionaire George Soros, accused by Hungary’s government of orchestrating migration to Europe.
— Zoltan Kovacs (@zoltanspox) December 10, 2019
“I think it’s outrageous. I do not tolerate it at all,” said Tuppurainen. “I expect all my colleagues to say no to all kind of anti-semitism, there’s no room for anti-semitism in the European Union.”
“We very often describe ourselves as a European family and definitely do not do something like that to the family member.” said the Commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič. “So I think that it was something which is totally unacceptable.”
Hungary retorts that it is being treated unfairly.
“It was shown that if the Union wanted to protect the rule of law, then the proceedings could have been closed a long time ago, since the Hungarian delegation has given exhaustive replies to all questions,” said Judit Varga, the country’s justice minister at a press conference, reported the state owned MTI.
Hungarian journalists from Index and Népszava reported that the justice minister’s press conference scheduled after the hearing to which they were previously invited was in fact cancelled, and Varga only informed reporters of pro-government outlets.
The EP was not invited to the hearing despite its request to participate, instead being offered an informal breakfast with the interested European ministers, with values and transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová, and justice Commissioner Didier Reynders also in attendance.
Hungary placed less importance on the breakfast, being represented by heads of legal service. “Besides, the number of ministers [in attendance] did not reach even half,” said Varga.
“The way they [ministers] listened and the level of interest was very good,” the rapporteur for the rule of law in Hungary, MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield told EURACTIV. “Of course, it’s not enough, it’s not an official participation in the hearing.”
“It’s not the level of sincere cooperation we are entitled to in the treaties,” underscored the MEP, but commended the Finnish presidency currently leading the Council for its cooperation and described the breakfast as a ‘nice first step.’
This is the Council’s second hearing on the issue. The first hearing was held on 16 September, almost a year after the European Parliament (EP) triggered Article 7 proceedings against Hungary in 2018.
“We cannot stay in this situation that’s endless and the Hungarian government can easily ‘say you see, it’s not going anywhere because it’s not a real problem,'” said MEP Delbos-Corfield.
“We have been here for more than fifteen months now and this procedure leads us nowhere,” echoed the Hungarian justice minister, arriving to the Council meeting.
The new Commission promised to pursue other means to rein in Hungary and Poland, while the proceedings drag on in the Council against the two countries.
“Maybe there are some tools that are more efficient than others,” the Commission’s justice chief told reporters before the hearing. “We are going to the Court [of Justice], and we have had a positive decision about Poland, we are also before the Court for Hungary.”
The Commission has referred to the EU’s top court Hungary’s law that criminalises helping refugees and migrants as well as the higher education law that forced the Central European University (CEU) funded by Soros out of the country. CEU opened its new main campus in Vienna on 14 November.
“You’ve always got the silent ones [member states] where you don’t really know what they think. But for a lot of them, there’s no need to convince them anymore. They are convinced,” said the MEP, but pointed to the fact that EU ministers have questions on how to proceed with the proceedings against Hungary.
“We think the Council should now after these two hearings, and after the facts have been established, … make recommendations and to have the political will and the courage to do” so, said Delbos-Corfield.
The Council will require a four fifths majority to make recommendations to Hungary, which would be the first in a long list of steps towards applying sanctions.
Croatia and Germany, member states next in line to receive agenda setting power in 2020 holding the EU presidency, will have the chance to deal with the issue.
“I think that the German presidency will clearly try to work on the topic,” said Delbos-Corfield . “The Croatian presidency has not talked about it so it’s more difficult to know.”
While the Article 7 hearings were going on, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a controversial bill yesterday (10 December) that foresees depriving MPs who seriously disrupt parliamentary proceedings of their salary for up to 6 months and banning them from the Parliament building for up to 60 days.
The thematic hearing today did not directly address all issues mentioned in the EP’s report. On Monday (9 December) thousands protested in Budapest against a law that would see the country’s minister for human resources have a say in appointing theatre directors at institutions jointly financed by the state and municipalities.
The law, first published on Monday (8 December), would establish a new National Cultural Council responsible for the “unified strategic direction of various segments of culture.” The vote on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday (11 December).
[Edited by Georgi Gotev]