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18th Nov 2018

Hungarian and Polish NGOs urge EU funds against crackdown

  • Protestors in Budapest last year demonstrating against the NGO law (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

Civil society groups under attack in Hungary and Poland urged the EU on Tuesday (9 January) to set up a fund geared towards NGOs that are protecting European values in member states.

NGOs in the two central European countries, where what Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban once boasted was 'illiberal democracy' has taken a hold, have called for the creation of a so-called "European Values Instrument" that would support civil society groups that are promoting democracy, human rights and rule of law.

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"We should be putting our money where our mouth is," Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which has recently been the target of a government campaign against NGOs, said at a European Parliament hearing.

She said foreign funding has been the key in maintaining the independence of her organisation.

The Helsinki Committee partly focuses on protecting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, which has made the NGO a target for Orban's government, which vehemently opposes taking in refugees.

"European institutions should set up a instrument to defend civil rights organisations," Pardavi said, adding that there were such mechanisms for accession and third countries, but not for EU member states.

Pardavi told EUobserver that existing EU funds are designed for specific, short-term projects, usually available for 18 months. She argued that for the sustainable functioning and reinforcement of human rights NGOs, an overarching funding should be available.

"The later this fund comes to life, the more money it would need," she argued.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is one of the organisations affected by new legislation targeting civil society groups that receive foreign - including European - funding, forcing them to label themselves as "supported from abroad".

The European Commission in December referred Hungary to the EU's top court because of the law, which the bloc's executive said infringed EU rules.

Pardavi said her organisation would not comply with the new law.



She said that the police, the interior ministry and other law enforcement organisations have ceased their contracts with the NGO, despite having worked together for over 20 years.

"There is desperate need for the EU to start recognising the problem of the civil society organisations," Malgorzata Szuleka, lawyer and researcher at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland said at the event, adding that NGOs are usually the first victims in countries where rule of law is under pressure.

She said the shrinking space for NGOs to consult with the government is one of the ways Poland is shutting out the civil society from telling their opinion on draft laws.

Szuleka told Euobserver that certain NGOs are on a "starvation diet" in Poland, especially those dealing with migrants and refugees, and women's rights.

She said NGOs used to rely on public financing, but with the government of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in power those funds have dried up. She cited the example of EU funds for migration and refugees that has not been distributed in Poland by the authorities.

Szuleka said the EU should step in and help make NGOs more resistant to the changing of the governments.

'Ill democracies'

At the parliament hearing, human rights advocates argued that governments in Poland, Hungary and, for a period of time, in Croatia, are working from a similar "playbook", when building an illiberal democracy, undermining fundamental rights and the rule of law.

Hungary has been regularly criticised by the European Commission, whic has also launched the Article 7 sanctions procedure against Poland on rule of law issues.

"We see a number of countries, where there are worrying developments on the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights. And the EU is struggling to cope with that," said liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld, one of the organisers of the event, along with EPP MEP Frank Engel.

In 'T Veld added that this is not about a divide between the eastern and western part of the EU, but among people who stand up for the rule of law and those authoritarians who take away human rights.

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