Friday

24th Nov 2017

Budget MEP accuses Orban aide of political interference

  • "I disapprove of the attitude to exert pressure on an EP parliamentary body," Ingeborg Graessle wrote in a letter to the European Parliament's president Antonio Tajani. (Photo: European Parliament)

The chair of the European Parliament's budgetary control committee accused Hungarian authorities of political interference over control of a railway in Viktor Orban's village.

In a letter to the parliament's president, Antonio Tajani, dated 6 September and seen by EUobserver, MEP Ingeborg Graessle said that a close aide of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban tried to pressure her into modifying her committee's upcoming visit to Hungary.

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She said that in two different letters, Janos Lazar, the minister of the Hungarian PM's office, criticised the choice of projects the committee planned to visit later this month.

At the centre of the controversy is a vintage railway built partly with EU funds in the village of Felcsut, where prime minister Viktor Orban grew up.

According to Graessle, Lazar accused the budgetary oversight committee of interfering with the upcoming Hungarian elections in spring next year.

In her letter to Tajani, Graessle also wrote that upon the request of Lazar, the Hungarian ambassador to the EU pleaded with her on 5 September to change the list of projects to be visited, or to postpone the whole visit until after the elections.

Graessle said that she made it clear to the envoy that the budgetary control committee "does not accept political interference in the way it organises its work of controlling the implementation of the budget."

Contacted by EUobserver, the Hungarian permanent representation did not want to comment on the issue.

The German MEP also sent her letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

"I disapprove of the attitude to exert pressure on an EP parliamentary body with regard to the organisation of a mission as well as with regards to its content," she wrote.

She added that Lazar's choice not to cooperate means that he does not comply - "in political, nor in legal terms" - with the requirements of mutual sincere cooperation, which is a basic rule among the institutions and member states.

The budgetary control committee carries out visits to EU projects to monitor the spending of EU funds.

Last year, the committee scheduled a visit to Hungary, and the programme of the visit was endorsed by its officials on 21 June.

It then reached out to Hungarian authorities to facilitate the visit.

On 9 August, according to Graessle's letter, Lazar complained that the committee did not follow the Hungarian proposal on the sites to visit. He claimed the committee's programme was one-sided and favoured the aims of the Hungarian political opposition.

In her first response, Graessle pointed out that the programme was agreed on by the committee, with all political affiliations. Replying on 4 September, Lazar again criticised the selection of the projects slated for a visit.

Felcsut railway

Apart from the vintage railways, the village of Felcsut, which has a population of 1,700, also boasts a 4,000-seat sports stadium built next to Orban's weekend house.

The railway cost more than €3 million, with almost €2 million coming from EU funds.

In his September letter, according to Graessle, Lazar suggested that the committee should visit other projects in villages run by opposition politicians as well.

On Thursday (7 September), at a weekly press conference in Budapest, Lazar said that a visit to the Felcsut railway would be "political discrimination".

He said that there are no obstacles to the delegation seeing it, but that there are other important issues to be looked at.

Lazar also claimed that the committee's scrutiny will be biased, citing the example of a Facebook comment written by Graessle, where she wrote that Orban got on her nerves.

Graessle hails from the same political family as Orban, the European People's Party (EPP).

Last year, Graessle told Die Welt, a German newspaper, that EU funds should not be distributed to countries that do not respect EU law.

Hungary is one of the countries that has not taken in asylum seekers. Currently, an EU parliament report is also being drawn up on the state of democracy and rule of law in Hungary.

"I would like to reassure the Hungarian government once again that there is no bias neither behind the choice of the date of our mission, nor of the projects," Graessle told EUobserver in a statement on Friday.

She said that the visit will be conducted in a "politically neutral way, as we always do."

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The European Commission says the new law is discriminatory, and interferes with the freedom of association. Hungary, which accuses the NGOs of helping illegal migration, has one month to answer.

Investigation

How Brussels took on Orban's son-in-law

EU anti-fraud sleuths have taken a closer look at the company of the son-in-law of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban - and they don't like what they found.

Tying EU funds to politics could be double-edged

EU taxpayer money to countries challenging EU core values? The answer might seem obvious, but not to those on the receiving end of the EU subsidies, who argue that most of the money trickles back.

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A small group of MEPs are looking into how members of the European Parliament spend the monthly €4,300 'private expenses' funded by taxpayer money. Last month, MEPs voted on transparency amendments on the funds.

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