The European Commission is not ready yet to take measures against Hungary, despite the country passing laws to curb academic freedom and trying to decrease the freedom of civil society organizations. The EU executive arm complete a legal assessment to study if newly introduced laws are compatible with EU rules.
EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday the commission decided developments in Hungary need discussion, but do not warrant action.
“There is in the view of the commission today, not a systemic threat to the rule of law in Hungary. ... The college unanimously agreed that a broader political dialogue between the Hungarian authorities, other member states, and the European Parliament and Commission is now warranted.”
Since Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was elected in 2010, independent media and civil society freedom to operate is shrinking. He frequently criticizes the European Union and says he is working to transform Hungary into an "illiberal democracy."
Despite signing the Rome Declaration on the future of the bloc last month, Orban’s administration started a "stop Brussels" campaign that includes a nationwide survey asking citizens how the government should deal with threatening policies.
Academic freedom targeted
A law passed earlier this week targets academic freedom. It is believed the law is intended to stop operations of the Central European University that is funded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
Tens of thousands of protesters have demonstrated against the education bill, and are opposing a law targeting non-governmental organizations, which is expected to be approved in May.
Eszter Kiss of the Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute says there have been several times when it seems its employees are under government surveillance. Kiss feels that the new law would further stigmatize civil society organizations.
“Because of the hate campaign and the aggressive, unpredictable legislation practice of the government very few people in Hungary have the courage to openly donate for CSOs and the law will make the situation only more difficult. The draft and the plan of this law were introduced with the communication that CSOs should operate transparently. In fact, they are already obliged by the law to publish their financial reports.”
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Stefania Kapronczay says the proposed law will not shut down organizations immediately, but that it strengthens the negative rhetoric used against civil society. Kapronczay hopes the European Union will defend democracy in the country and the freedom of expression.
“When Hungary joined this union we signed up for the adherence to those values, so we expect the European Union and the European politicians to hold Hungary accountable to upholding those values. We believe that is something that holds together the union and these are the European values.”
A few options for pressure
The EU Commission said follow up steps on legal concerns in Hungary will be decided by the end of this month. The country has been able to enact most of its illiberal reforms.
Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska of the Center for European Reform says the tools the bloc has to address rule of law issues aren’t working properly.
“When a government violates European law and in the process goes against democratic values the commission can open an infringement procedure and bring the case in front of the Court of Justice. This procedure cannot be applied however when an EU government backtracks on democratic values but does not break any EU law. If the European Commission does not find any evidence that the EU law has been broken by government's reforms on higher education there is little it can do.”
A recent report by monitoring group Freedom House claims Hungary has the lowest democracy score in Central Europe and that Poland is also failing.
European Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said earlier this week the European Union sees “worrying trends” in countries such as Hungary and Poland, which has received several warnings from the bloc on issues related to democracy and rule of law.
Massive demonstrations were staged in both countries, but the governments are still moving forward with their agenda. Jourova said she encourages people to be vocal.
“I myself do not believe that any administrative steps or infringements or other measures taken by the European commission in relation or against some member state will help a lot. It must be the people in the member states which feels the need to say something on the future development,” said Jourova.
One EU measure could be to trigger Article 7, a punishment whereby a member state loses its voting rights. But triggering Article 7 needs backing of all member states and is so politically sensitive it’s called the "nuclear option."