Members of the European Union (EU) Parliament are calling on the Romanian President of the EU to prioritize action towards the rapid decline of the rule of law and democracy in Hungary. A debate was held on January 30th, in which European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmerman called on EU countries to prioritize investigations into and put together a plan to respond to recent developments that seem to threaten democratic institutions in the country. Timmerman and other like-minded MEPs, in addition to prioritizing Hungary’s situation on the EU agenda, have been advocating punishments for policies not aligning with EU regulations. This comes on the heels of sanctions that the EU placed on Hungary in September 2018 due to concerns about corruption and human rights violations under the right-wing Fidesz government.
Those pushing for the prioritization of Hungary on the EU agenda are primarily concerned by the recently passed “slave law,” changes to the law on higher education and the “Stop Soros” legislation. The legislation on overtime passed in Hungary in December 2018, dubbed the “slave law” by its critics, raised the amount of overtime an employer can require from 250 hours yearly to 400, and gives them three years to pay workers for their overtime hours rather than one. This caused demonstrations of 5,000 Hungarian workers in Budapest and raised red flags for many EU MEPs (The New York Times).
Orban has been accused of arbitrary legislation after the Central European University was moved from Budapest to Vienna due to insecurity about the future of American-accredited programs under his government. The university was founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who also happens to be Orban’s “self-declared nemesis,” according to the EU Observer. Soros is also the namesake of the disconcerting “Stop Soros” legislation, passed in June of 2018, that criminalizes activities by organizations that support asylum-seekers or residency applications. Notably, this targets NGOs that oppose the government’s hardline anti-immigration policies, a stance that also raised concerns within the EU about whether it is aligned with their regulations on immigration. Another alarming development was the unification of 400-plus media outlets under one government-backed media holding. The EU executive is currently investigating the “Stop Soros” law but wants to expand its reach through investigations into these and other developing issues in Hungary.
The previous Austrian presidency of the EU was criticized for not prioritizing the claims against the Fidesz government, so MEPs are now strongly urging the Romanian presidency to realize the gravity of the situation. Josef Weidenholzer, an Austrian MEP, said, “Hungary is becoming a façade of a democracy.” Ingeborg Grassle, a German MEP also from the centre-right European People’s Party, was concerned while overseeing the use of EU funds that in Hungary “EU money isn’t being used as it should be.” Grassle explained that Hungary “has a problem with fraud, with corruption, with public tendering and with the fact that the justice system doesn’t want to deal with crimes.” While Viktor Orban, the populist-nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister, has not addressed the recent concerns, Tamas Deutsch, a Fidesz MEP, defended Orban’s government by accusing the “leftwing liberal majority” EU parliament of coming after Hungary because of its conservative strict migration policies, according to the EU Observer.
The EU is often reluctant to discipline individual member states to avoid interfering in others’ political matters. While the need to respect Hungarian national sovereignty is important, as a member of the EU, Hungary has agreed to abide by common principles which, if not regarded, give the EU a right to investigate – as they have already with the “Stop Soros” legislation, requiring Hungary to respond within 2 months or the matter will move to the EU’s highest court. Particularly when it comes to matters of human rights and corruption, investigations to clarify the reality of the supposed situation are necessary starting points for an EU concerned about a member state.
While sanctions were already placed on Hungary last September, a formal plan is needed to lay out the next steps for dealing with the situation. MEP Judith Sargentini, who was responsible for the report on Hungary that led to the implementation of these sanctions, claims the Romanian presidency needs to come forward with a timetable on how to properly deal with Hungary in regard to the given issues that continue to rise (EU Observer). With the triggering of Article 7 in September following the report on the decline in the rule of law and democracy, the EU is now responsible for investigating if Hungary’s policies and arbitrary rule have breached EU regulations and “fundamental rights.” Other member states can now give a formal warning and follow up with sanctions.
Yet sanctions alone are not likely to solve the issues arising in Hungary. Bilateral dialogue between Orban’s government and a neutral state representing the values and fundamental rights of the EU could be a non-aggressive strategy to calm the situation. This would avoid claims of hidden political agendas and biases on the side of the EU while also allowing the EU to hear Hungary’s response to the accusations. From there, it can be assessed if Hungary is, in fact, functioning outside of EU policy and a course of action to correct the problems can be devised without escalating political tensions or economic sanctions.