Tag Archives: infringement procedures

Márta Pardavi’s testimony at the EP hearing on the Situation in Hungary

Márta Pardavi is co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. A lawyer by training, she leads the organization’s work in the field of refugee protection. She also serves on the board of the PILnet Hungary Foundation, a project funded by the International Visegrád Fund, which supports NGOs in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and the Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival. Between 2003 and 2011 she was a member of the board, and later vice-chair, of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European alliance of 96 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons.

Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE)
European Parliament
Brussels, 7 December 2017

Dear Chair, Minister, members of the European Parliament,

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today, it is an honor.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee was founded in 1989 and has been working to defend human rights in Hungary. Our work focuses on protecting refugees and protecting human rights in detention and in criminal justice and the rule of law. This year, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee was shortlisted for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Vaclav Havel Prize and also was the recipient of the Gulbenkian Foundation’s prestigious Prize in Human Rights, in Portugal.

The common values in Article 2 of the Treaty are core values that are both the pillars and the drivers of our European community and European integration.

In Hungary, the government has systematically weakened checks and balances and the rule of law. The fundamental values of the EU have come under increasing threat and are being systematically disrespected.

Where independent institutions of governance have been dismantled or weakened, a free media and a vibrant and vocal civil society are essential to counterbalancing excessive power. Public participation in democratic processes and holding government accountable cannot be ensured without free and plural media and a free civil society.

Civil society has many roles, but one is particularly important here today. We speak truth to power. As a human rights organization, we protect individuals and society as a whole against the overreach of power and breaches of our common values as set out in Article 2 of the Treaty. When it says this discussion is nothing but a political attack and interference in domestic affairs, what the Hungarian government questions is exactly the shared nature of our common core European values. However, civil society’s role is to encourage also the European institutions, and others, to act in the interest of upholding our common values.

Space for expressing and accessing critical and pluralistic views in Hungary has been rapidly and alarmingly shrinking in the past year.

Beginning back in 2013, a series of measures began to target, discredit and intimidate civil society organizations that strive to hold the government to account on its obligations concerning anti-corruption, environmental protection, fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law. You will remember the series of unjustified investigations and even a police raid in 2014 against NGOs that had received funds from the EEA and Norway Grants NGO Program.

Other measures putting pressure on independent civil society include unfounded allegations by members of the Hungarian government or the ruling party as well as misleading or untrue reporting from government-controlled and government-aligned media. The national consultations and government communication campaigns held this year, you will recall, plastered Hungary in billboards calling to ‘Stop Brussels’ which attacked European institutions, or the currently finishing consultation that has been scaring the country with a sinister plot on migration.

These measures are meant to focus on and attack individuals and groups that express views about public affairs which are different from that of the government. This is no way to respect our common values in a European democracy.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst expressed concern in March 2017 about the continued stigmatization of human rights defenders and about the chilling effect of the inflammatory language used by senior government officials on the public perception of the value of civil society.

In its May resolution, the European Parliament called on the government of Hungary to withdraw the then proposed Act on the Transparency of Foreign-Funded Organizations. Nevertheless, on 13 June, the Hungarian Parliament proceeded to adopt the anti-NGO law.

Under the Anti-NGO Law, any civil society organization that receives over about EUR 23,000 per year from foreign sources should register as an “organization receiving foreign funds” in a state register. Foreign funding can come directly from the European Commission, UN bodies, private foundations or Hungarian citizens who are living abroad. The ‘foreign-funded’ label has to be displayed on all of its publications, print and digital alike. Failure to comply with the law could lead to a judicial procedure that could impose fines or even result in the court dissolving the organization.

The Venice Commission issued its final opinion a week after the law was adopted. It stressed that despite its legitimate aims, the law may not be used to stigmatize NGOs or restrict their ability to carry out their activities. The law causes disproportionate and unnecessary interference with freedom of expression and association, the right to privacy and non-discrimination.

In July 2017, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure on account of the law on foreign-funded NGOs. The Commission found several violations of EU law, namely that the Law interferes unduly with fundamental rights as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in particular, the right to freedom of association. The Commission concluded that the new law could prevent NGOs from raising funds and would restrict their ability to carry out their work. The new registration, reporting and publicity requirements are foreseen by the law are discriminatory and create an administrative and reputational burden for these organizations. These measures may have a dissuasive effect on the funding from abroad and make it difficult for the concerned NGOs to receive it.

To date, 233 Hungarian NGOs have publicly condemned the Anti-NGO Law as we believe it is unnecessary, stigmatizing and harmful. Unnecessary, because Hungarian civil society organizations are already transparent in their operations, provide accurate information about their donors and finances in annual reports and carry out their activities before the public. Stigmatizing, because the law implies that organizations which work for the benefit of Hungarian society by receiving international grants for their work pose a threat to the country. Harmful, because it undermines mutual trust in society and questions the right to freedom of expression.

There is a reason to fear that the newly adopted law will not be the endpoint of the several years’ long governmental campaign against independent civil society organizations. On the contrary, this is a new step in a long process that aims at fully discrediting and hindering independent civil society organizations.

This anti-NGO law is closely modelled after the Russian ‘foreign agent law’, which has made the work of independent pro-democracy and human rights NGOs extremely difficult. In many cases, good NGOs doings highly important work have had to close down.

Not only is the anti-NGO legislation itself strikingly similar in Russia and Hungary. The smear campaigns against prominent NGOs, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, are also very similar to what goes on in Russia.

Now, the government has begun to make references to national security risks. Already at the end of October, the Prime Minister and other government ministers spoke about having instructed the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies to look into how the so-called Soros-network has links to what it calls ‘Brussels’, European institutions such as the Parliament and the Commission.

As a Hungarian, it makes me upset that instead of fostering tolerance, the government of Hungary fuels intolerance — with taxpayer funds.

In addition to the constant Brussels-bashing in the billboards and full-page advertisements that I am sure you have seen pictures of as well, the hugely expensive taxpayer-funded national consultations are driving intolerance and xenophobia in Hungary to alarmingly high levels. Fearmongering against migrants and refugees, against Muslims, against foreigners who might look different than an average Hungarian, has created widespread hatred and fear in society. In small communities, locals have prevented a handful of recognized refugees from holidaying in their village. Elsewhere, foreigners staying in local bed and breakfasts must show their vaccination certificates under a local decree.

While radical, extremist and racist views like these are found in many parts of Europe, it is not governments themselves who fuel and disseminate them with taxpayer funds.

Politicians and governments can lead by example. However, the government of Hungary is setting a worrying and dangerous example when it comes to human rights and rule of law protection. My country has become a widely quoted example of an illiberal state in the heart of Europe, in the European Union. We are witnessing how this example is being followed elsewhere in the EU, most notably in Poland, but not only there.

Over the years and this year, the European Commission has launched infringement measures for a significant number of rules of law and human rights issues in Hungary. However, these infringement measures have not been able to address, let alone remedy the systemic breaches of rule of law and human rights in Hungary. In our European toolbox, we have further tools to address the broader concerns — of which I have highlighted a few here, but for lack of time, not all.

I haven’t spoken about refugee protection; independence of the judiciary, corruption, equality between men and women, minorities — the list of concerns goes on.

The tools to fix them need to be taken out before it’s too late.

Thank you for your attention.

December 10, 2017

European Union salvo against Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state

Yesterday an editorial appeared in Magyar Hírlap, a government-sponsored daily paper. The author reassured the paper’s readers that “yesterday nothing new happened; nothing was decided; the political, financial, legal, and communication war [between the EU and Hungary] will continue.” And in any case, next week there will be an important EU summit where “the power relations between Brusselites and the camp of those countries that defend sovereignty can shift further toward the latter.”

Admittedly, it is important for a government publication to spread optimistic messages, but the fact is that official statements belie these hopeful predictions. Viktor Orbán rarely gives “extraordinary” television interviews, but after the barrage of bad news coming from Brussels he felt it necessary to explain his version of the events.

What is the Hungarian government facing at the moment? Two different proceedings against the country are underway. The first is a triad of infringement procedures. The second, the beginning of the Article 7(1) process.

Infringement procedures are legal actions against a member country that fails to implement EU laws. There are stages to these procedures, which basically involve an exchange of legal opinions. After the second such unsatisfactory exchange the Commission sends the case to the European Court of Justice. In the event the judgment goes against the country and that country doesn’t rectify the situation, the Commission will propose that the Court impose financial penalties which, depending on the seriousness of the infringement, may be quite high, especially if the penalty is imposed for each day the country is not in compliance.

Hungary at the moment has three serious infringement cases under consideration at the European Court of Justice: the country’s refusal to accept a small quota of refugees, its modification of the laws regarding foreign-financed civic groups, and the amendments to the education law that placed Central European University in a precarious position. Its continued existence is still very much in question.

The other “drama” is being played out in the European Parliament, where a resolution was adopted earlier that calls for launching Article 7(1). It instructs the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to draw up a formal resolution for a plenary vote. On December 7 there was a hearing on the issue, where Péter Szijjártó represented the Hungarian government. The adoption of a resolution calling for the initiation of Article 7(1) proceedings, which could result in the suspension of voting rights for the targeted country, is a first in the history of the European Parliament.

These are significant matters, so I wasn’t surprised that Viktor Orbán, who rarely initiates television appearances, decided to grace the newly appointed Echo TV with his presence. Of course, Orbán’s interviews are so obviously staged that one can easily pick out all the “key words” that were supplied to the anchors ahead of time. And naturally the interviewers never ask “difficult questions.” One of the messages of government communication from here on will be that none of these “attacks” on Hungary has anything to do with the Orbán government’s transgression of European laws and values. They are inflicted on Hungary either because the Orbán government’s actions have had an adverse effect on the economic interests of foreign multinational companies or because they interfere in some mysterious way with the goals of the bureaucrats in Brussels.

In this interview Orbán renewed his claim that economic interests triggered the Tavares Report of 2013, which was a sharply worded, hard hitting report on the state of democracy in Hungary. After the European Parliament accepted Rui Tavares’s report, the Hungarian government wrote a resolution of its own which was then submitted to parliament. It was a verbose, clichéd piece of writing which included a sentence that struck me as odd at the time. It claimed that the Tavares Report was an answer to Hungary’s “reducing the cost of energy paid by families. This may hurt the interests of many European companies that for years have had windfall profits from their monopoly in Hungary.” That claim was ridiculous in 2013, if for no other reason than that the Tavares Report, which had nothing to do with economics, had been in the making for a year and a half while the Orbán government’s lowering of energy prices took place about two months before the release of the report. I really wonder whether by now Viktor Orbán actually believes this lie since he used the same kind of rationalization to explain away the report that is currently being drafted in the European Parliament.

Viktor Orbán claimed in 2013 that the very thorough analysis of the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic norms was nothing but a series of political attacks. Today he claims the same. As far as he is concerned, all disputes about democratic norms were closed before 2013. The Hungarian government has “the paper” to show that the European Commission and the Venice Commission were totally satisfied with all the changes that had been made to the media law and the constitution. It is not a lack of democracy that the Commission and the Parliament are really worried about today. EU politicians are concerned that Hungary’s stance on migration will hurt “their interests.” As if it was in the interest of the European Union to be faced with a million and a half refugees and immigrants. It is hard to fathom that anyone believes such nonsense or, for that matter, that any self-respecting politician can utter such an absurdity. And yet Orbán, with a straight face and in all seriousness, discussed the European Union’s plans to create a “continent of mixed population.” I assume I don’t have to add that George Soros and his network are behind this diabolical plan.

The key word, by the way, in this interview was sovereignty, which was kindly supplied by Orbán’s old friend Zsolt Bayer, one of the two anchors. Often, when Orbán encounters a word that is borrowed from abroad, like sovereignty (szuverenitás), used in Hungarian since 1786, he feels compelled to explain what the word actually means. This time he came up with “freedom” (szabadság) as a good equivalent. “At stake is the question of Hungarian freedom,” he claimed. The debate in the Union “touches on the question of freedom.”

With this switch from sovereignty to freedom, Orbán moved the discussion to an entirely different plane. Sovereignty means complete independence and self-government. Freedom, on the other hand, has many meanings, including “the condition of not being subject to a despotic or oppressive power,” and that can conjure up all sorts of xenophobic reactions in Hungarians. “Brussels is after us.” And indeed, some of the comments I read today in right-wing papers were revealing. One genius announced that the reason for the five-times higher living standards in Austria is Vienna’s exploitation and oppression of Hungary for five hundred years. The same can also be heard about the European Union’s plutocrats. Hungarian nationalism can easily be awakened by an appeal to “freedom,” a ploy Orbán loves to use. And it always does the trick.

December 9, 2017

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017

What will Viktor Orbán have in his satchel when he goes to Brussels on October 3?

I don’t even know where to start because there are so many fascinating topics to pick from. Perhaps the most significant comes from Magyar Nemzet. The paper learned from “diplomatic sources” that Germany is ready to come to Hungary’s aid in some of the most serious infringement procedure cases in return for Viktor Orbán’s more moderate stance on the refugee issue and a “more constructive attitude” towards issues concerning the European Union.

Magyar Nemzet got hold of a secret government background study which dealt with the gravity of the situation posed by the 21 infringement procedures leveled against Hungary that are under consideration at the moment. The document that described the “economically or politically significant” cases paints a grim picture of relations between Budapest and Brussels.

Of the 21 cases the two most significant are Paks II and the Budapest-Belgrade railroad project. I don’t think I have to say much here about Paks II. We all know far too much about the shady deal Viktor Orbán negotiated with Vladimir Putin that will put Hungary in debt to Russia for at least 30 years. It is a well-known fact that the European Union has had great misgivings about Paks II because the project was awarded to the Russians without any competitive bids. In addition, the profitability of the project is in doubt; perhaps only hidden state subsidies would keep it afloat. On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever written about the high-speed rail connection between Budapest and Belgrade that was negotiated with China. Magyar Nemzet reported about two weeks ago that an infringement procedure is in place in connection with the construction of the railroad.

In December 2014 Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, and China signed an agreement on the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens railroad, “which will allow the fastest transportation of Chinese goods from Greek harbors to Europe.” Under the agreement a consortium led by the China Railway Group was awarded a $1.57 billion contract to build the 160 km Hungarian section. Two Chinese companies will finance 85% of the project; the rest will be paid by Budapest. The European Union has many concerns about the project. Once again, the profitability of the project is in question. The railroad might end up being a white elephant, just like the choo-choo train in Felcsút. 444.hu calculated that the construction of the Hungarian section would cost about 400 billion forints but that only 4,000 people travel on the line daily, which is 1% of all railroad travel in the country.

Now Magyar Nemzet’s sources claim that these two projects will be given the green light by the European Commission thanks to the good offices of Berlin. What Germany, specifically Angela Merkel, would like in exchange is for Viktor Orbán to tone down his anti-refugee rhetoric and to work with the other member states in arriving at a common solution to the problem at hand. Hungarian sources stressed that Viktor Orbán’s policies regarding the refugee crisis “might be dangerous for Angela Merkel” at home. Figyelő learned earlier from a German diplomatic source that “the referendum might be a turning point, after which the Hungarian government might be more constructive. It is possible that Orbán might even offer helpful suggestions.”

Magyar Nemzet claims to have already noticed a less belligerent Viktor Orbán with respect to Germany. The paper also called attention to László Kövér’s statement, in a long interview with Magyar Idők, that a strong Europe cannot be imagined without Germany. I must admit that I haven’t seen any great change in the anti-EU rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and others, but we will see what happens after Sunday. If I were Angela Merkel, I wouldn’t rush into anything. I would first want to see concrete signs of true cooperation, not just words. As we know, Orbán’s words are worth nothing. And even if, in a desperate attempt to salvage his two pet projects, he changes his tune in the next months or so, it is folly to think that three months later he will not continue his uncooperative behavior exactly where he left off. In fact, I would predict that this is exactly what will happen. And by that time work on both projects will have begun and nothing will be able to stop them.

As I said, I find it difficult to believe that a different Viktor Orbán will emerge after the referendum. In fact, in an interview he gave to Magyar Katolikus Rádió he indicated that he will have all the ammunition he could possibly need in his negotiations with the European Union. He talked about the referendum as the beginning of something new. If it is successful, he “will put ‘hamuban sült pogácsa’ into his satchel” and will head toward Brussels.

pogacsa

So, let’s stop for a minute and try to explain what Orbán had in mind. Every dictionary I consulted translated “pogácsa” as cake, which is outright wrong. It is more like a biscuit or a scone. For those who would like to try their hand at making pogácsa there are plenty of recipes available online in English.

But back to Orbán’s reference. According to a Hungarian folktale, the children of a poor man go on a long and dangerous journey. Their mother makes these special biscuits for them, baked in ashes, but only the oldest’s “pogácsa” is made out of white flour. The youngest’s and the stepchild’s biscuits are made out of bran. The youngest child, the hero of the tale, shares his biscuits with a beggar, a fox, a mouse, and ants, with all those who helped him on his way. It seems that Orbán knows only the first part of the story. The part about the generous hero escaped his attention.

September 30, 2016