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12th Aug 2022

Sluggish procedure against Hungary back on table

  • Hungary's EU state minister Szabolcs Takacs (l), Poland's EU minister Konrad Szymanksi (m) talk to Belgium's foreign minister Didier Reynders (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Troubles with Hungary and Poland will be back on the agenda of EU affairs ministers next Tuesday (19 February) - but procedures looking into their dismantling of the rule of law and the erosion of democracy in the two countries will not move forward.

Member states and the Romanian presidency of the EU have already been criticised for the lack of progress on Hungary last month.

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No concrete outcome or a clear timeline for steps ahead is expected from the talks on Tuesday, either.

The EU commission launched the so-called Article 7 procedure against Poland in December 2017. The European Parliament triggered the same procedure against Hungary last September.

Under the procedure, ministers have to assess whether Hungary and Poland are breaching fundamental values laid down in the EU treaty and could address recommendations to the governments on how to remedy the situation.

It is the fourth time the situation in Hungary is discussed among EU affairs ministers, but the procedure has been bogged down by procedural issues.

Bogged-down in institutional jealousy

Under the previous Austrian presidency, ministers heard from EU commission vice-president Frans Timmermans laying out ongoing commission probes and court cases against Hungary on violating rights of asylum seekers, targeting and intimidating NGOs and amending a higher education law that eventually forced the Central European University in Budapest to decide to relocate to Vienna.

Hungary submitted over a hundred pages of written responses on the issues.

But the procedure is stuck there party due to institutional jealousy between the parliament and the council of EU countries.

The European parliament wants to participate in the process, as it was a parliament report by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini that triggered the procedure.

EP president Antonio Tajani sent a letter to the Austrian presidency last year to lobby for the parliament's participation.

The Romanian presidency plans to discuss the issue with the head of the civil liberties committee of the parliament.

However, member states are wary of allowing the parliament or an MEP into their meetings, as they fear it would create a dangerous precedent for continued parliament interference in their work.

"We give a finger and the parliament takes an arm," one EU diplomat quipped.

Romanian blackhole?

Several diplomats have said it is unclear to them how the Romanian presidency wants to handle the case of Hungary, while the Romanian presidency wants member states to give a clear direction on how to proceed.

Meanwhile, Romania's government had its own share of EU criticism on rule of law.

Around 18-19 member states want to keep Hungary on the agenda, but there is no consensus on how to approach the issue or when.

Because Hungary's Article 7 probe is complicated furthermore with an ongoing case at the EU's top court.

Technical quibbles

Hungary's government has challenged the way the parliament voted on Sargetini's report last September, arguing that excluding the abstentions when calculating the two-thirds majority needed for Article 7 to be triggered was against the rules.

Sargenitni's report was approved by 448 votes to 197, with 48 abstentions.

Some member states are reluctant to move ahead with the procedure before the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice rules on the legality of the parliament vote.

But that ruling is not expected to happen this year, and judges are not expected to hear the case before the summer break, pushing the Article 7 procedure even further into the distant future.

Meanwhile, Hungary has become the first EU country to be designated as only "partly free" in an annual barometer of democratic freedoms by the Freedom House, a Washington-based think-tank earlier this month.

The erosion of democracy under prime minister Viktor Orban constitutes "the most dramatic decline ever charted" in the EU, the report said, while all other 27 EU members maintained their "free" label.

Hungary's government rejected the report, saying that Freedom House was part of the "empire" of George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire investor and philanthropist. Hungary's government has also been labelling Timmermans as a 'Soros stooge'.

Poland push

Poland in the meantime wants to convince fellow member states to close the Article 7 procedure as the Warsaw government has amended crucial legislation criticised by the EU

Timmermans will make the argument to EU affairs ministers that more needs to be done. "There is no real willingness [among member states] at this moment to drop Article 7," said an EU source.

Member states would need to decide if they want to keep the pressure up on Poland and vote on if they believed Poland was violating EU values and propose recommendations. But that is unlikely to happen on Tuesday.

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