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10th Dec 2022

MEPs condemn EU Commission 'leniency' on Hungary

  • EU budget commissioner Johannes Hahn said things are going in the right direction (Photo: European Parliament)
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MEPs criticised the EU Commission on Tuesday (4 October) for what they see as giving Hungary's government an easy way out of the unprecedented mechanism which freezes billions of euros of EU funds — just as Hungary adopted key laws to unlock those subsidies.

The commission hinted it could give more time to Hungary to prove it has implemented efficient anti-corruption measures in its long-running rule-of-law row with the executive.

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"Hungary made important commitments in the right direction," EU budget commissioner Johannes Hahn told MEPs at a debate at the European Parliament's plenary on Tuesday.

On Monday, however, Hahn told the parliament's budget committee that measures Budapest promised to deliver will take time to implement in practice.

He cited that, for example, 50-percent of public procurements tenders have a single bidder in the country run by prime minister Viktor Orbán — and it will take time to see if that changes.

Orbán's government meanwhile pledged to deliver 17 measures that it hopes will unlock billions of euros in EU funds held up because of concerns over corruption and judicial independence.

The measures, including setting up a new authority overseeing the spending of EU funds, were adopted by the Hungarian parliament over Monday and Tuesday. The commission will now assess specific law to examine wheter they in fact deal with the corruption concerns.

Hahn said "key steps" will have to be made by Hungary to release the EU funds from the bloc's long-term budget.

"The European Commission's assessment is that a risk for the budget remains, pending the implementation of the key steps," Hahn said, suggesting the commission will not wait for full implementation by Budapest's government.

The commission last month proposed suspending 65 percent of EU funds, from three programmes under the 2021-2027 EU budget, amounting in total to €7.5bn.

The decision now rests with the EU member states, who have one month to decide on suspending the funds, or have the opportunity to delay the decision until mid-December.

The Czech presidency of the EU said ambassadors will discuss the commission' s proposal on Wednesday.

The Austrian commissioner added that the conditions for Hungary, beyond December, "will be transferred" to the Covid-19 recovery fund, where EU countries need to reach "milestones" to unlock the tranches of money allocated to them.

Hahn also said that if Hungary does not stick to the agreement, the commission can always restart the so-called "conditionality mechanism" which allows the EU to suspend funds.

Parliamentary disquiet

Several MEPs called on the EU executive not to let Orbán get away with curbing judicial independence, and backsliding on democracy.

"The commission will end the procedure in December, based on mere promises from Viktor Orbán. To count on Orbán's words, after having been fooled by him time and again, that's pretty ridiculous to trust his word, not his actions," German Green MEP Daniel Freund told the plenary.

Liberal Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld said "Orbán has demolished democracy unimpeded for over a decade. He has used EU funds to cement his power".

"The commission must not disburse any further funds without meaningful verifiable reforms," she added.

Other MEPs argued that new institutions will be useless as judicial independence in Hungary is still lacking.

"We have seen repeatedly, a number of steps are taken [by Hungary], but ultimately those steps only serve to deceive the council [of member states], to then subsequently switch to an even more hardline course of action," centre-right Germany MEP Monika Hohlmeier said.

"We have seen oligarchisation of the country on an unprecedented scale," Hohlmeier, the head of the budget control committee, added.

Hungarian MEP Balázs Hidvéghi, in response, told the plenary that "extremist MEPs are engaged in blackmail and divisiveness".

He called the criticism "absurd accusations" whose aim is "to ensure" that the Hungarian people do not receive EU money.

The Orbán-ally MEP said the government and the commission has reached a "fair, negotiated agreement" and that "there is no legal or technical issue that has not been resolved".

'Cosmetic changes' not enough on EU funds, Hungary warned

Critics point out that Hungary will continue to receive substantial inflows of EU funds since the proposed suspension applies only to around 22 percent of total EU subsidies earmarked for Hungary in the bloc's current budget for 2021-2027.

EU Commission proposes freezing 65% of funds to Hungary

The freezing, the first time in the EU's history using the conditionality mechanism linking EU subsidies to the respect of the rule of law, would suspend money from the bloc's cohesion funds under the 2021-27 long-term budget.

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