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9th Dec 2022

Macron gloomy on rule of law after meeting Orbán

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French president Emmanuel Macron said Hungary does not intend to settle the EU's rule-of-law concerns by its general election next April, during a visit to shore up central European support for the French EU presidency.

Hungary has "not displayed the will" to progress on rule of law or discrimination issues between now and the April 2022 Hungarian parliamentary elections, and therefore the EU will not make "any" EU funds available, Macron was quoted by AFP as saying in Budapest on Monday (13 December).

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The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is expected to rule on a mechanism that links EU funds to rule-of-law standards. Macron said he hoped the ruling will lift ambiguities about the mechanism to show "it's not about political sensitivities".

The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, claimed the bloc's Covid-19 subsidies were being held up because of Hungary's anti-LGBTIQ legislation, which is under scrutiny by the EU Commission. Macron stepped in to say it was due to issues related to corruption and public procurement.

Hungary and Poland have been under EU scrutiny for challenging judicial independence and suspected democratic backsliding.

Both countries' recovery plans to access the €800bn recovery fund have been on hold over rule-of-law and corruption concerns.

The French president was in the Hungarian capital for a meeting with the Visegrad group, including the leaders the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, ahead of the French EU presidency in January.

Macron arrived to Budapest to rally support from the central European alliance for his presidency's main topics - climate, migration and the EU's strategic autonomy.

"We think there is no autonomy without a European defence industry. There is no autonomy without our own energy capacities, that is, without nuclear energy. And there is no autonomy without the ability to be self-sufficient in agriculture," Orbán said.

Courting Orbán

It was the first time a French president had visited Budapest since 2007.

Macron acknowledged that he had "well known political disagreements" with Orbán.

The French president in June called the controversy around the anti-LGBTIQ law a "cultural battle", acknowledging a rift with increasingly assertive illiberal leaders in central Europe that was hurting EU cohesion.

Macron, who once pitched himself as the antagonist to Orbán, in recent years has shifted towards the right on migration.

"We have to put pressure on our values ​​to be respected in an intractable way", but "I do not believe that we can provide a relevant and lasting response to these problems by excluding such and such a country," Macron said.

There are other areas where the two leaders agree on EU-level: both want to promote nuclear energy and recognise it as green investment.

Campaign mode

Both Macron and Orbán face elections next year.

Orbán enters the race on more secure grounds. Under his leadership the electoral law has been redrawn, the public media is dominated by a pro-Orbán narrative, and the independence of state institutions have raised concerns.

The Hungarian premier has also received in the last two months two political challengers of Macron - French far-right leaders Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

Orbán has become an inspiration for far-right politicians in Europe.

Macron, for his part, started out his visit in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest, visiting the grave of philosopher Ágnes Heller, a staunch critic of Orbán.

Macron also met with opposition leaders in Budapest, including the capital's mayor, Gergely Karácsony, and the candidate to challenge Orbán in next year's general elections, Péter Márki-Zay.

Opposition politicians MEP Klara Dobrev, who was also at the meeting, said Macron pledged that the rule-of-law conditionality mechanism will be launched during the French presidency.

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