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31st Oct 2020

EU defends Jourova over Hungary's resignation demand

  • Commission vice-president Vera Jourova. In an interview with Der Spiegel she called Viktor Orban's Hungary an 'ill democracy' (Photo: European Commission)

The EU Commission defended on Tuesday (29 September) vice-president Vera Jourova against a demand from Hungary for her resignation.

Prime minister Viktor Orban, in a letter to commission president Ursula von der Leyen, said the resignation of Jourova, who oversees EU values, was "indispensable".

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The thunderbolt letter came after Jourova said, in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, that Orban is building an "ill democracy" - a pun on the Hungarian PM's self-proclaimed "illiberal" democracy.

"President von der Leyen works closely with vice-president Jourova on the rule of law, and the vice president has the president's full trust," commission spokesperson Dana Spinant said on Tuesday.

Jourova also criticised media freedom in Hungary in the interview, saying "there is hardly any criticism of the government in Hungarian media anymore, so that a large majority of Hungarians may no longer be able to form a free opinion".

Orban responded that Jourova's comments were a "direct political attack against the democratically-elected government" in Hungary. The PM also called her remarks "derogatory", "unacceptable" and "insulting" to Hungarians, and incompatible with her current mandate.

And Orban concluded that the comments were a violation of the principle of sincere cooperation laid down in the EU treaty, preventing "meaningful" future dialogue between Hungary and Jourova, and suspending bilateral contacts with her.

"Members of the commission should be in a position to talk to member states on all sorts of dossiers, including the difficult things," commission spokesperson Christian Wigan responded.

"The commission continues to stand ready for a dialogue, our doors are open," he added.

Germany's EU affairs minister Michael Roth also defended Jourova, saying "the European Union needs your impartial and clear mind" and adding, "thank you for your tireless engagement."

Several MEPs also jumped to the defence of the Czech commissioner.

"Could we stop this circus, Judit Varga?," tweeted Green MEP Sergey Lagodinsky - referring to Hungary's justice minister.

"Jourova did not call Hungary a 'sick democracy', she called Orban's vision of his country a 'sick democracy'. This intimidation campaign has to stop! Does not benefit your government's credibility," he added.

Hungary's call for Jourova's resignation came a day before the commission's publication of its first-ever rule of law review of all EU member states, including Hungary - which is currently under a probe for breaking EU rules and values.

"Our concerns when it comes to the rule of law situation are well known, they will be addressed in our rule of law report which will be adopted tomorrow," commission spokesperson Spinant said.

Jourova herself, along with justice commissioner Dider Reynders is expected to present the report on Wednesday.

Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto announced on Monday that a new Polish-Hungarian institute concerned with the rule of law will be established, to counter EU attacks.

The attack on Jourova also puts Czech prime minister Andrej Babis in an awkward position - as he nominated her to the commission and she hails from his ANO party, yet Babis is an ally of Orban.

'Open extortion'

Orban's letter is the latest move in a string of bellicose political statements and moves from Budapest.

Last week, Orban dismissed the commission's new migration proposal, after the EU executive had already moved towards Hungary's anti-migration position to clinch Budapest's support for a deal.

On Monday, the latest compromise draft on the link between rule of law and EU funds put forward by the German EU presidency also fine-tuned the proposal closer to Hungary's position.

Yet Varga on Tuesday called this draft "unacceptable".

Earlier this month, Hungary - and later Poland - warned that if the rule-of-law conditionality was not to their liking, they will not give green light to the necessary legislation on EU levies that will unlock the €750bn corona recovery fund.

Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, argues the attack on Jourova is part of Orban's policy of "open extortion" and "hostage-taking" against Brussels.

"As the Hungarian parliament's ratification is needed for the 'own resources' decision, Orban now wants a clear victory, and he does not want to enter any compromise, be it migration or the watered-down German rule-of-law proposal," Hegedus said.

Hegedus said Orban is also seeking to undermine the cohesion of the EU executive and the legitimacy of the rule-of-law review itself.

"Orban might calculate that if the commission's cohesion is so weak that they sacrifice [trade commissioner Phil] Hogan, then Jourova and her rule-of-law portfolio could be badly weakened by such an attack," he said.

Hogan resigned in August for violating Ireland's coronavirus measures.

Hegedus added that if von der Leyen, who hails from the centre-right European People's Party, does not treat this as an attack on her entire commission - despite Jourova coming from the liberal political family - it will weaken the EU executive's position of power.

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Divisions among EU governments remain between those who want to suspend EU funds if rule of law is not respected, and those who want to narrow down conditionality.

Rule-of-law row complicates budget talks

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