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24th Jul 2021

Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

EU affairs ministers on Monday (16 September) held their first hearing on Hungary over concerns that the Budapest government curbed judicial and press freedoms, clamped down on civil society, and weakened the rule of law and checks on the government.

Hungary's justice minister Judit Varga dismissed the procedure as a "political witch-hunt".

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  • Hungary's justice minister Judit Varga (l) with Belgium's foreign minister and possible new rule of law commissioner, Didier Reynders (r) (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Finnish EU affairs state minister Tytti Tuppurainen retorted by saying that it is "of course, not a witch-hunt, it is not against anyone", but a procedure based in the EU treaties. "This is not a trial," she added, speaking to reporters Monday evening.

Monday's hearing was the first of its kind concerning Hungary under the Article 7 sanctions procedure.

A year ago the European Parliament triggered the process, following mounting concerns over the country's democratic backsliding.

Varga told reporters the procedure was part of the "revenge campaign of the pro-migration elite" because Hungary has said no to migration. She also questioned the parliamentary vote's legality when adopting the report.

Varga said that "the pro-migration liberal elite continued to repeat the same baseless, untruthful, unfounded accusations that are echoed in the liberal, mostly western European media".

"We have been defending Europe, the European identity, the Christian culture, the European way of life for centuries, we should be supported, not attacked," she told reporters, in a clear echo of the commission's rebranding of its migration portfolio as "protecting the European way of life."

Q and A

At the hearing, French EU affairs state secretary Amélie de Montchalin spoke on behalf of Germany too when she told Varga that the general picture in the parliamentary report "about the respect for fundamental values in Hungary is worrying".

She urged Hungary to address and resolve the concerns.

Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Portugal took the floor and asked questions of the Hungarian team led by Varga.

Their questions focused partly on academic and media freedom.

Prime minister Viktor Orban's government and its allies took control of the public media and most of the country's private news media, and drove out the Central European University, founded by US billionaire philanthropist George Soros, from Budapest.

The government recently pushed through legislation stripping the 200-year-old Hungarian Academy of Sciences of its network of research bodies, further tightening government control over academia.

Denmark, France and Portugal asked the Hungarian ministers about recent developments in the country's judiciary, where judges overseeing the head of the court administration, Tunde Hando, urged parliament to remove her for abusing her power when selecting judges.

Hando is the wife of a Fidesz MEP and was appointed in 2012 after Orban's government overhauled the judiciary.

The parliament, dominated by Orban's MPs with a two-thirds majority, refused to oust her in June. Hando called the supervisory body biased, and rejected the allegations.

Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans warned that a decision by the Orban government to postpone the introduction of so-called administrative courts is not a positive step - but only delays the deterioration of the independence of the judiciary in Hungary.

The new court system is designed to whitewash corruption cases, critics say.

Sweden and the Netherlands asked about corruption, while Luxembourg inquired if treatment of asylum-seekers is now in line with international standards in Hungary.

Varga argued to her colleagues that the European Parliament report does not contribute to EU unity. She accused the parliament of being politically-motivated and claimed that Hungary deserves respect, according to an official.

In a 158-page note prepared for the meeting, Hungary's government argued both that the parliament's conclusions are unjustified, and that some of the issues fall outside the legitimate scope of the procedure.

At the hearing, Varga hinted at migration saying Hungary should not be targeted because it has a different position on policies, the official added.

Unknown future

It is unclear where the procedure will lead. Article 7 can end with the suspension of voting rights, but that requires unanimity among EU countries, and Poland - which is also under the same disciplinary process - had already said it would veto any such move.

Varga argued that the case should be closed, and only with a strong majority backing should the Finnish presidency's case proceed.

France proposed to have more hearings on specific issue until the concerns are resolved. Timmermans said international organisations should be invited to underpin the report's concerns.

"It will be up to the next weeks and months to us to decide how we will move forward," Finland's Tuppurainen said after the hearing.

The European parliament was not invited to the meeting, their position was represented by the Finnish EU presidency.

The parliament's civil liberties committee chair, Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, and the new MEP dealing with the Hungary file, Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, wrote a letter to parliament president David Sassoli to lobby member states to include the parliament in the following hearings.

After Varga wrote on Twitter on Monday that Hungary was being "put on pillory for rejecting mass immigration", it earned a quick rebuttal from Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld.

She responded: "You are not put 'on pillory' for rejecting mass immigration, but for violating human rights, destroying the rule of law and non-compliance with EU law. Don't play the martyr."

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