I don’t think that anyone familiar with the Hungarian situation can doubt the economic ramifications of the institutionalized corruption of the Orbán regime. It retards growth and competitiveness and distorts the market economy.
A significant source for this institutionalized stealing is the EU’s convergence funds. Across the EU approximately 50 billion euros in funds distributed to member states is lost to fraud. The problem is especially acute in the former Soviet satellite countries: Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. The European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) gathers evidence of financial misconduct and prepares hundreds of judicial recommendations, but the prosecution rate is only about 30%.
If you think that this rate is pitifully low, you should take a look at the Hungarian situation. In 2015 OLAF investigated 17 suspicious cases, of which 14 were deemed serious enough for the organization to suggest that financial penalties be paid by the Hungarian government. As far as I could ascertain, in no case did the Hungarian prosecutors move a finger.
Yet hardly a day goes by without news of corruption. Ákos Hadházy, co-chair of LMP who has done the most to unearth corruption, asked Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, to reveal the number of cases prosecuted since 2011. The answer was staggering. In only four cases did prosecutors bring charges. In monetary terms, in comparison to the billions most likely stolen, the sums involved were peanuts. According to their findings, the financial loss to the European Union was only 286 million forints, or 917,030 euros. Even though every day Hungary receives about two billion forints in EU convergence funds. Several notorious cases, like the street lighting business of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, were simply dropped.
For the EU, setting up a new organization–the European Public Prosecutor’s Office or EPPO–to investigate the fraudulent misuse of EU funds and inter-state or so-called carousel fraud is becoming an urgent task. In December I devoted a post to the subject, in which I reported first the reluctance and later the refusal of the Hungarian government to accept such a supranational body. We heard the old refrain: “the sovereignty of Hungarian prosecution might be undermined.” Moreover, goes the argument, since the Hungarian chief prosecutor is appointed by parliament, there might also be a constitutional problem. The latter excuse is truly laughable: almost never does the need for an amendment to the constitution cause any problem for the Orbán government.
Knowing the government’s heavy reliance on the good offices of the chief prosecutor in fraud cases, it was inevitable that Hungary would fight tooth and nail against EPPO. In the last couple of days the issue emerged again after an informal meeting of the justice ministers in Malta. Seventeen countries indicated they would participate in so-called “enhanced cooperation,” which is a procedure whereby a minimum of nine EU countries are allowed to establish advanced integration or cooperation within EU structures without the other EU countries being involved. Five countries, among them Hungary and Poland, opted out.
Justice Minister László Trócsányi self-righteously announced after the meeting that the Hungarian government’s main concern with setting up an EU public prosecutor’s office is its fear of weakening such institutions as Eurojust and OLAF, neither of which has prosecutorial powers. The former is merely a coordinating body that is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. OLAF can only make recommendations. Trócsányi had the temerity to claim that “these institutions have achieved remarkable results.” In the statement given to MTI, the Hungarian news agency, Trócsányi left open one possibility: “In case they want to establish a European prosecutor’s office, it should be created on the foundation of Eurojust.” As far as Hungary is concerned, “regulating the competence of such a body should require a unanimous vote.” This is in contrast to other countries “who believe that its establishment is possible by a qualified majority.”
Péter Niedermüller, DK member of the European Parliament, somewhat optimistically predicted that “the establishment of EPPO can be delayed but cannot be prevented.” We do know that the EU is reassessing its convergence program, perhaps as a result of all the fraud. Commissioner Věra Jourová, who is in charge of the project, has already indicated that there might be a modification of the rules governing the assignment of EU convergence funds. In plain language, if a member state receives more funds than it contributes to the common purse, it will get less money in the future. The European Parliament can institute “ex ante conditionalities” that would allow for such modifications. That would be a heavy blow to Poland and Hungary, the largest beneficiaries of the convergence funds.
You may have been wondering why I haven’t written about OLAF’s report on its investigation into fraud in the Budapest Metro 4 project, which was reported by Politico at the end of December 2016. It has been heralded as one of the biggest fraud cases ever in the European Union. OLAF recommended the repayment of €228 million to the EC Department of Regional and Urban Policy and €55 million to the European Investment Bank.
Although in the last month the Hungarian media has been full of accusations and counter-accusations, no responsible reporting of the case is possible for the very simple reason that the Hungarian government refuses to make the OLAF document public. As long as we have no idea what is in the document and we have to rely on the interpretations of János Lázár and Nándor Csepreghy, the number one and two men of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Budapest Mayor István Tarlós, who has definite ideas on the subject but admits that he hasn’t seen the report itself, we cannot possibly pass judgment on the case.
The investigation covers the period between 2008 and 2014–that is, two years of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai government and four years of the Orbán administration. The only thing we can say is that it is unlikely that all the fraud took place before 2010 and nothing happened under the new government, which is what the Orbán government claims.
Under the present setup these OLAF reports can be an instrument for political games. The establishment of a supranational European Public Prosecutor’s Office would help prevent the kind of situation that currently exists in Hungary with the latest OLAF report.