European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) held a hearing on Thursday morning concerning the deterioration of rights, democratic standards and the rule of law in Hungary. The hearing is part of a longer process in the Parliament to prepare a report that could result in Article 7 of the EU Treaty being triggered for the first time. The Article 7 procedure allows EU governments to take action against another member country when its government is in serious violation of the EU's fundamental values. Meanwhile, the European Commission announced that it will take Hungary to court in three cases concerning migrant quotas, the anti-NGO law and the higher education law targeting the Central European University.
'You recently adopted a decision that obliges member states to accept an uncapped mandatory migrant intake quota', Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó stated at the LIBE meeting. Szijjártó was referring to a decision of the EU that obliged Hungary to accept around 1,300 refugees out of a total of 120,000 to be relocated among the 28 member countries of the EU to relieve pressure on Greece and Italy. The EU is now revising its asylum laws, but a recent EC communication suggests that governments are far from agreement over whether to accept a new relocation system - whether voluntary or compulsory - under future rules.
Hungarians flooded with government propaganda
The inaccuracy of the foreign minister's statement typifies the level of government propaganda that has dominated country’s current public debate. At the hearing, Szijjartó proudly detailed the success of his government's latest communications tool: a 'public consultation' alleging that philanthropist George Soros is behind an international conspiracy to destroy Hungarian culture.
Gábor Polyák, an analyst of the Mérték Média Monitor Institute who also spoke at the LIBE hearing, noted that the consultation contains only loaded questions and has been accompanied by a government-sponsored hate campaign designed to stir up xenophobia and turn the public against its own civil liberties campaigners.
Polyák also stated that Hungary's free press has been reduced to a handful of editorial teams with few resources. It is not just the public broadcaster that has become a mouthpiece of government propaganda. The private media market has also become mostly pro-government, in part thanks to the advertising revenue these outlets receive from the state, in breach of EU competition rules.
Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair Márta Pardavi who also invited to address MEPs spoke of sustained attacks against rights groups. A recent threat by a member of the Hungarian government suggesting that the intelligence services should investigate pro-democracy campaigners was the latest in a long line of attempts to intimidate and smear activists working in the public interest that have been critical of the Fidesz's policies.
Commission takes Hungary to court in several cases
Although the European Parliament is contemplating triggering Article 7 in relation to Hungary, Commission First Vice President Timmermans has taken a more moderate tone. While the prevailing view among commentators is that the situation in Poland is just as bad as Hungary, the Commission has tried to differentiate between the two because party political dynamics have allowed it to pursue Poland only under its investigatory procedure, the 'rule of law framework'.
Still, on Thursday the Commission referred three cases against Hungary on politically sensitive issues to the European Court of Justice. The anti-NGO law was referred to the court following Hungary's failure to address Commission concerns expressed in two earlier stages of the procedure: the letter of formal notice sent by the Commission in July, and the reasoned opinion issued in October.
The Commission has taken issue with the anti-NGO law because it interferes with EU laws on the free movement of capital, freedom of association and the right to privacy by making it harder for rights groups to receive donations from people in other EU countries.
The second case relates to Hungary's refusal to host asylum-seekers under the EU-wide quota system. Fidesz has largely relied on xenophobic arguments that Muslim refugees have no place in Christian societies and constitute a security threat. The third case concerns the government's efforts to close Budapest's Central European University, which was founded by George Soros.
According to Israel Butler, Head of Advocacy at Liberties, 'The Commission and progressive EU governments are running out of time. Authoritarian tendencies are on the rise across the EU. By the time governments decide to do something to protect our fundamental values, they will be too weak to save them and we will lose the gains forged out of the Second World War. The EU must use all the tools it has to protect democracy, rights and the rule of law. Not only top down measures to pressure badly behaving governments, but also by providing grassroots support like funding and legal protection for rights groups.'