Saturday

19th Jan 2019

Opinion

Hungary should be ringing alarm bells in Brussels

  • Viktor Orban. Labelling independent organisations as paid activists trying to topple the government is reminiscent of Russian government methods (Photo: EPP)

Hungary’s governing party is cranking up the heat on non-governmental organisations. With its tight grip on parliament and having undermined the courts and the media, the Fidesz party government doesn’t like being held to account by pesky independent groups.

Fidesz is a prime example of the danger of a type of populism that results in a government attacking basic European values like a free civil society.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

The 27 February hearing in the European Parliament’s committee for civil liberties, justice and home affairs (Libe) on the situation of fundamental rights in Hungary couldn’t be more timely.

On 10 February, in his state of the union address, prime minister Viktor Orban described civil society organisations as one of five major “attacks” on Hungary that the government needs to defend itself against in 2017.

He said that international organisations, headed by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and groups backed by him, secretly wanted to influence domestic politics. On 21 February, Orban announced that there will be a national consultation on each of these five "threats".

Orban described Soros and his Open Society Foundations as “large bodied predators swimming in our waters,” who through the paid activists want to bring hundreds of thousands of “illegal migrants” into Europe and who relentlessly work to undermine the Hungarian government and parliament.

Russian methods

Labelling independent organisations as paid activists trying to topple the government is reminiscent of the Russian government’s style of branding independent groups as foreign agents.

In early January, Szilard Nemeth, the Fidesz party vice-president, publicly stated that Hungary will use “all tools at its disposal” to “sweep out” organisations funded by the Hungarian-born Soros as they “serve global capitalists and back political correctness over national governments.”

Nemeth said that with Donald Trump’s election as the US president, the timing is right. (Full disclosure: Human Rights Watch is among the many groups around the world that receive funding from Open Society Foundations).

The prime minister’s office named the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International Hungary, all Soros funded, as key “troublemakers.”

Nemeth said that part of the “sweep out” plan will require the heads of these organisations to publicly declare their personal assets.

The government has not provided any details of how this will work or about sanctions for those who refuse to comply. It’s not the first time Orban has publicly aired his resentment toward core democratic principles and human rights and toward those who try to safeguard them.

Illiberal agenda

In July 2014, during his infamous speech in Romania, he declared that he wants to end liberal democracy in Hungary.

Since 2010, that’s certainly what his government has been busy doing.

Step by step, Orban and his government have taken control of key public institutions - the constitutional court, media authority, national judicial office, data commissioner, general prosecutor, curbed media freedom and gone after independent groups.

Weeks before Orban’s 2014 speech, the government targeted organisations that received grants from Norway, ordered a raid on their offices, and subjected them to financial inspections that found no financial irregularities.

A Budapest court in January 2015 ruled these raids unlawful.

Prior to the arbitrary financial inspections, the Hungarian prime minister’s office published a list of 13 organisations, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International, labelling them “left-leaning” and “problematic.”

In fact, those three groups have played a critical role in exposing abuses by the government across a wide range of policies and its disregard for the rule of law.

Nor is it the first time the government has publicly attacked Soros and his Open Society Foundations. This is despite the fact that Orban and leading government officials and members of parliament have generously benefited from Soros’ support when Hungary was transitioning from communism to democracy in the late 80s.

Crossing the line

Some may argue that the government criticising civil society groups is just a part of the rough and tumble of politics.

But considering the direction of travel of the Hungarian government in recent years, its efforts to undermine checks and balances on the executive, and the importance of these groups to public life, there is no cause for complacency.

Unless the EU and other European institutions defend European values and take steps to support civil society groups that are under attack in Hungary, all of Europe will be the poorer.

Lydia Gall is the Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch

Croatia and Hungary are 'new face of corruption'

Transparency International said the crackdown on civil society in Croatia and Hungary "under the guise of a nationalist, ‘illiberal’ agenda" represented the new face of corruption in Europe.

EU hesitant on Hungary newspaper closure

Journalists from Hungary's largest newspaper were locked out of their office for a second day on Monday, but the EU Commission said it was powerless to help.

Soros-linked NGOs defy Orban purge

Hungarian NGOs funded by philanthropist George Soros have vowed to defy prime minister Viktor Orban’s plan to “sweep them out” of the country.

How to troll the European Parliament elections

The May 2019 European parliament elections will take place in a context which make a very promising ground for protest votes and extreme views, aided by bots and algorithms.

On Morocco, will the EU ignore its own court?

If the European parliament votes in favour of the new Morocco agreement without knowing that it complies with the European Court of Justice judgement, how can it demand that other countries respect international law and their own courts?

News in Brief

  1. EU trade commissioner asks for green light for US talks
  2. Slovakia's commissioner takes unpaid leave to run for presidency
  3. Minority elects Lofven as prime minister of Sweden
  4. Putin opposes EU prospects of Serbia and Kosovo
  5. Tsipras launches campaign to ratify Macedonia deal
  6. US-EU meeting in doubt after Trump cancels plane
  7. Germany and China to sign pact on finance cooperation
  8. Labour divided on second Brexit vote plan

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. Aachen treaty and Brexit endgame This WEEK
  2. Germany led way on EU human rights protection
  3. How to troll the European Parliament elections
  4. MEPs in Strasbourg: everywhere but the plenary
  5. Brexit delay 'reasonable', as May tries cross-party talks
  6. MEPs allow Draghi's membership of secretive bank group
  7. EU parliament backs Morocco deal despite row
  8. Barnier open to 'future relations' talks if UK red lines shift

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us