Friday

6th Dec 2019

Hungary's breaches back on EU agenda next month

  • French MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield plans a mission to Hungary in the first half of next year (Photo: European Parliament)

EU affairs ministers will hold a second hearing on Hungary's possible breach of EU rules and values at their next meeting on 10 December under the Article 7 procedure, Finland's EU presidency said.

Finland's EU ambassador Marja Rislakki was speaking to MEPs in the civil liberties committee on Thursday (21 November) in a debate on Hungary, which is under EU scrutiny for curbing judicial independence, media and academic freedom.

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The ministers' meeting will focus on a few key topics, to be decided later by EU ambassadors, Rislakki said.

It is the second such hearing under the Finnish EU presidency, although the procedure was triggered by the parliament in September last year.

MEPs on Thursday argued that while EU institutions are stuck on procedure, the situation in Hungary is deteriorating.

Some pointed to the Central European University, targeted earlier by the Hungarian government, which opened its doors in Vienna on Monday after its US diploma program was forced out of Budapest.

MEP Balazs Hidveghi from Hungary's ruling Fidesz party, retorted by saying that "Hungary has no problem whatsoever with the rule of law". "What we have a problem with is rule of law being used as a weapon against us," he said.

He argued that the debate on rule of law is a political attack from the liberal-left because Hungary rejected the relocation of migrants.

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a Green MEP from France dealing with Hungary in the parliament warned that "there is a possible domino effect in the EU", and pointed out that Hungary has been blocking council agreements on other key issues.

Delbos-Corfield was taken on as rapporteur of the Hungary file, replacing Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini.

Sargenitni's report on Hungary's democratic backsliding was supported by a two-third majority of the European parliament last year, including the majority of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), aligned with Fidesz.

The vote triggered the so-called Article 7 probe into the Hungarian governments policies on the judiciary, media, corruption, civl society, academic freedom.

The process has progressed at snail-pace in the council of member states, tasked with determining if Hungary is violating EU rules.

The Romanian and Austrian EU presidencies, over their 12-month stewardship, did not put a hearing on the council's agenda, while Hungary had challenged the legality parliamentary vote at the EU's top court, where the case is still pending.

The Finnish presidency held a first hearing in September.

Despite parliament triggering the procedure, MEPs have not been allowed to present their case in the council.

Despite a letter by parliament president David Sassoli asking for MEPs to be involved, the set-up is unlikely to change.

"We have not been included and it doesn't seem that we will included this time," Delbos-Corfield told Euobserver ahead of the debate, pointing out that experts, and other institutions, are on the other hand are welcomed in council meetings.

"This does not help institutional interwork, and Europe in general," she added, while commending the Finnish presidency's efforts on defending rule of law.

Delbos-Corfield said she had asked the parliament's legal service for an opinion on the matter.

The final analysis is not yet complete, but the MEP said that while the legal service found no legal obligation for the council to involve parliament, there is also no rule that forbids council from inviting the lawmakers.

Political courage?

Despite the slow process of the procedure, Delbos-Corfield thinks the adoption of the Sargentini report and the council's procedure are in themselves "quite an achievement".

She compared the Article 7 sanctions procedure to Article 50, which secures the right for member states to leave the EU, and was triggered by the UK in 2016 - both are short and vague, and leave unanswered questions about procedures.

Delbos-Corfield said that Article 7 needs to be elaborated, and the commission and the council each said earlier that the rule of law mechanism needs to be strengthened.

"The EU has managed to put sanctions on countries for financial aspects, not abiding by austerity measures. If we can do that, why we can't do it for major issues, like rule of law?," she said, adding that less intra-governmentalism would help.

She doubts that financial sanctions would be the efficient way, as proposed under the new long-term budget by the commission.

She points to another commission proposal, the annual rule law review, where all member states would be scrutinised equally.

With the data available, a comparison is possible, she said, adding that while her home country, France "is not a huge example of judicial independence", what makes Hungary different is the systematic breach of the rule of law.

"The threat is not the same," she said.

The Green MEP emphasised that nothing will happen without political courage.

"You can have the best tools, if you don't have the courage, they are useless," Delbos-Corfield said, pointing to the political courage of EPP MEPs voting for the Sargentini report, and the Finnish presidency.

Delbos-Corfield expects that the issue will "calm down" during the Croatian EU presidency.

Von der Leyen worries

The Green MEP plans a mission to Hungary in the first half of the first year, if it is agreed by the civil liberties committee in parliament, to see the situation in the country for herself.

There are no plans yet to update the report.

One of Delbos-Corfield's worries is the incoming EU commission led by Ursula von der Leyen, who was supported by Fidesz votes in parliament and gave the enlargement portfolio to the Hungarian commissioner-designate.

Questioning how can Hungary be put in charge of scrutinising accession countries, when it has an ongoing Article 7 procedure against its government for breaching EU rules, the MEP said: "It is a very bad sign, I am very very worried."

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