Saturday

18th Aug 2018

Opinion

EU must confront Poland and Hungary

  • PMs of the EU's two 'ill' democracies, Orban of Hungary and Szydlo, should not have the red carpet rolled out for them (Photo: premier.gov.pl)

Around the world, authoritarian governments put pressure on citizens' associations, squeezing the space in which they operate.

Intimidation and imprisonment, legal and funding restrictions, public discrediting and smear campaigns are key elements in their toolbox.

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When leaders in Egypt, Russia or Venezuela do this, no one is surprised, but similar developments inside the European Union are shocking. The union prides itself on being a beacon of democratic values and the rule of law where capital, people and ideas move freely in competitive markets.

Yet, citizens of Hungary and Poland find they are being prevented from freely expressing their opinions through non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Now, measures passed in Poland may outdo the recent Hungarian law on foreign funding.

In Budapest last summer, the parliament rubber-stamped legislation that required any organisation receiving more than €24,000 a year from abroad to publicly register as being "foreign supported."

If a donor, individual or institutional, gives more than 500,000 forints (€1,700) in a given year, its detailed data will be added to a special registry which is publicly accessible. The affected organisations face sanctions if they fail to comply.

The European Commission started legal proceedings against Hungary in October, and emphasised the law breaches EU treaty obligations on the free movement of capital.

The Hungarian government said the law will improve transparency, combat money laundering and terrorist financing without providing any evidence of links to terrorists or financial irregularity by NGOs.

The law is already helping the ruling Fidesz party's consolidation of power and silencing of dissent. NGOs are not necessarily oppositional, but Orban's stigmatisation of foreign influence seeks to strip legitimacy from any organisation that might offer an alternative viewpoint.

Prime minister Orban, running a permanent political campaign, next targeted the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros and the Open Society Foundations.

Islamophobia and anti-semitism

Already a convenient bogeyman, Soros has been personally vilified and subjected to an expensive media campaign which combines anti-Muslim bigotry with deep antisemitic hatred. The ruling class is now able to deflect attention from Hungary's real issues like health care and education and dodge questions about the results of eight years of Orban governance.

In Poland, under a law signed by president Andrzej Duda in October 2017, all NGOs will be centrally funded through a National Institute of Freedom and a National Center for Civil Society Development.

Prime minister Beata Szydlo can appoint a director for the institute to control all NGO funding, including money from the EU.

The government has said it would substantially increase NGO funding to €22 million - but civil society should not be a branch of government, however well it is funded.

Clearly all of these funds will go to pro-government or government-controlled organisations. In response, Norway has said it will withhold its annual NGO contribution of €5.5 million to NGOs, mirroring a similar dispute over funding in Hungary in 2014.

Cutting funding seems to be just the first step.

Poland's NGO umbrella organisation fears that different opinions from those of the government will not be heard. Groups addressing anti-discrimination, women's rights, LGBTI causes, and human rights will be hurt the most.

In October 2017, one day after women marched to protest the restrictive abortion law, police seized computers and essential documents from women's groups in four Polish cities. Prosecutors said they were investigating justice department contacts under a previous administration, but one of the organisations targeted, the Women's Rights Center, feared it was a warning not to step out of line with official government policy.

In both countries, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Parliaments in Budapest and Warsaw no longer hold proper political and policy debates. In Hungary, the ruling party and its cronies have full control of state and privately owned media and the Polish government is preparing to do the same.

Neither judiciary is independent from the executive. Some commercial sectors are subject to 're-nationalisation' - banks are being bought by business elites that are part of the ruling parties.

In Romania, another EU member, Liviu Dragnea, leader of the Social Democratic Party is the latest copycat, blaming NGOs as puppets of foreign interests. Under the fake mantle of national sovereignty, these countries are dismantling the very essence of democracy and competitive markets within the EU.

Less 'illiberal', more 'ill'

These fully-fledged EU member states are not illiberal democracies, they are ill democracies. Countries that deliberately interfere with civil society undermine pluralism and flirt with authoritarianism.

Given current political circumstances, the actions of the European Union and its Commission will be insufficient. Across the continent, democratic governments and competitive entrepreneurs alike should be concerned as nationalist populists are unlikely to stop at curtailing civil society.

They are already tearing apart the common market and the rule of law that Europeans value the most.

It is not too late, Poland must be dissuaded from traveling down the same dangerous path Hungary has already taken. Stopping the abuse of NGOs is more than just a symbolic step in that direction.

Goran Buldioski is director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe

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