Friday

18th Aug 2017

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

EU needs lasting solution to refugee crisis

If we continue with the failed approach of the last two years then this could become a systemic crisis that threatens the EU itself, writes Gianni Pittella.

Column / Brexit Briefing

The return of the chlorinated chicken

Britain has only just started on the path towards a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, but you can already see the same all-too-familiar disagreements.

Stop blaming Trump for Poland’s democratic crisis

If you were to judge events purely on the US media's headlines, you would be forgiven for wondering if the Polish government had anything to do with its recent controversial judicial reforms.

News in Brief

  1. Macedonia sacks top prosecutor over wiretap scandal
  2. ECB concerned stronger euro could derail economic recovery
  3. Mixed Irish reactions to post-Brexit border proposal
  4. European Union returns to 2 percent growth
  5. Russian power most feared in Europe
  6. Ireland continues to refuse €13 billion in back taxes from Apple
  7. UK unemployment lowest since 1975
  8. Europe facing 'explosive cocktail' in its backyard, report warns

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceDoes Genetics Explain Why So Few of Us Have an Ideal Cardiovascular Health?
  2. EU2017EEFuture-Themed Digital Painting Competition Welcomes Artists - Deadline 31 Aug
  3. ACCABusinesses Must Grip Ethics and Trust in the Digital Age
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Welcomes European Court of Justice's Decision to Keep Hamas on Terror List
  5. UNICEFReport: Children on the Move From Africa Do Not First Aim to Go to Europe
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersWe Need Democratic and Transparent Free Trade Agreements Says MEP Jordi Solé
  7. Counter BalanceOut for Summer, Ep. 2: EIB Promoting Development in Egypt - At What Cost?
  8. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  9. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  10. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  11. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  12. ECPAFood Waste in the Field Can Double Without Crop Protection. #WithOrWithout #Pesticides

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  2. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  3. Martens CentreWeeding Out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  5. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Ep. 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  6. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  7. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  9. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  10. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy