27th Sep 2020

Hungary quizzed over EU rules amid twitter row

  • Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga and Swedish EU minister Hans Dahlgren at the council. Hungarian spokesman Zoltan Kovacs broke protocol by tweeting during the meeting (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Hungary was quizzed on Tuesday (10 December) by EU member states over the independence of the judiciary, media and academic freedom under the EU's sanctions procedure.

It was the second such hearing under the Article 7 procedure triggered over a year ago by the European Parliament after increasing concerns that prime minister Viktor Orban's government is dismantling independent institutions and breaking EU rules.

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On Tuesday, Belgium, France, Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Spain and Ireland all raised concerns over the three related issues.

Both commission vice-president in charge of values, Vera Jourova and justice commissioner Didier Reynders also spoke.

Reynders raised concerns over the so-called omnibus bill, adopted on Tuesday by the Hungarian parliament , that critics say further restricts the independence of courts.

The bill replaced an earlier proposal establishing administrative courts to deal with politically-sensitive issues, which was withdrawn last month after criticism.

The new justice commissioner suggested it would have been good for Hungary to check the bill with the legal experts of the Venice Commission, given that the country is under the sanctions procedure and there is a need to build trust.

Hungary, represented by justice minister Judit Varga and innovation minister Laszlo Palkovics, responded it that bill was not a constitutional matter, and that the council should not act as a second chamber to the Budapest parliament.

Reynders also mentioned the issue of appointment and disciplinary procedures against judges.

The commissioner, plus several member states, raised the centralisation of the pro-government media under the Central European Media and Press Foundation (KESMA), established a year ago, that ties together more than 400 media outlets.

The unprecedented merger was exempted from competition oversight - also a concern for some EU countries.

Some member states quizzed the Hungarian ministers on the media council, a regulatory body in Hungary, which only consists of members loyal to Orban's ruling Fidesz party.

Several EU ministers also said recent legislation putting academic research under government control, and the Central European University's move to Vienna - after legislation targeting the institutions founded by US billionaire George Soros, a bogeyman for the Hungary's government - was cause for concerns.

Varga, according to a source, insisted that despite Hungary's reservations about a "politically motivated" and "inappropriate" EU procedure, the government stands ready to answer inquiries.

Varga added that Hungary would be open to an intergovernmental peer review of member states checking each others judicial and media independence - but objected to the commission's plan for an annual review on EU countries' respect for the rule of law.

Live tweeting breach

During the hearing government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs tweeted in real time from the behind-closed-doors council meeting.

In several tweets, he accused those asking questions to be part of what he called a "Soros orchestra" and called some ministers' questions "ridiculous".

After the hearing on Hungary but still in the council meeting, Finnish EU minister Tytti Tuppurainen, chairing the EU's presidency, said she was "disappointed" with Kovacs's tweets, according to several EU sources.

The minister then also asked for written explanation from Hungary for breaching the council's rules on sharing information from an in-camera meeting.

Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn demanded an apology and asked the Hungarian official tweeting to be removed (in fact, he had already gone by this point), and threatened to leave the room if the official stayed.

He recalled his row over migration with Italian far-right politician and former interior minister Matteo Salvini, whose aide recorded a behind-closed-door meeting, prompting Asselborn to curse in French after Salvini compared African immigrants to slaves.

Cancelled press conference

Varga later cancelled a press briefing in Brussels and gave a press statement to public media controlled by the government, and media friendly with the Orban government.

"Let's end this witch-hunt and move on to face European challenges together in a mutually-respectful manner," Varga tweeted later.

Germany's EU minister Michael Roth dismissed Kovacs's Soros accusation.

"Dear Mr secretary of state Zoltan Kovacs, I am not a musician, unfortunately not. I'm just a simple politician with a clear commitment to European values. #SorosOrchestra," Roth quipped in a tweet.

The Article 7 procedure was triggered by a European parliament report adopted in September 2018, but MEPs have not been allowed to present it to ministers.

On Tuesday, at the invitation of the Finnish presidency, member states officials and the two commissioners met with MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, who is in charge of the Hungary file.

Delbos-Corfield said all member states were represented at some level.

The French Green MEP told EUobserver she updated ministers on recent developments, highlighting the omnibus bill, the centralisation of the pro-government media and concerns over academic freedom.

The MEP told member states to come up with a clear recommendations to Hungary and deadlines.

She said there could be more hearings on specific topics, but that next two presidencies of the EU, Croatia and Germany, will need to take the Article 7 procedure further, and have the council issue recommendations to Hungary.

"I stressed [to member states] that nothing will happen without political courage on their part," she said after the meeting.

Hungary's breaches back on EU agenda next month

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

Hungary was quizzed by EU ministers over its domestic crackdown on media, judges, academia and NGOs. Hungary's minister responded by saying the country had defended "the European way of life" for centuries, and it should be respected.

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In its annual report, the EU's anti-fraud agency said it concluded nine investigations into Hungary and found irregularities in seven cases. In total, the agency recommended the recovery of €371m EU-wide.


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