27th Feb 2024

Orban's sovereignty bill seen as fresh attack on rule of law

  • The new law coincides with the controversial launch of a billboard campaign and a non-binding national consultation over funding for Ukraine and its EU membership bid (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Hungary's controversial new sovereignty law has been criticised by the domestic opposition as another attack on the country's democratic values and the rule of law — and it could bring yet another clash between Budapest and Brussels.

The draft law, submitted on Tuesday night (22 November) by the prime minister Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party, would establish an oversight authority to monitor foreign interference in Hungarian elections and propose legal changes.

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  • Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh: 'The so-called 'sovereignty protection law' represents another dark milestone for Hungary. It is a straight-up authoritarian tool to crush dissent, to intimidate and punish critical voices' (Photo: Wikimedia)

The chairman of this body will be nominated by Orbán himself and appointed by the president — leaving the Hungarian parliament out of the process.

However, it is seen by analysts and Fidesz's opponents as an attack on critical voices, since it will not only target political parties but also NGOs and other organisations whose activities may influence the outcome of elections.

Daniel Hegedus, a Hungary expert and senior researcher from the German Marshall Fund, said that the draft law creates "a perfect setting [for] intimidation" that is likely to discourage any civil society organisation from applying to get foreign funding if they want to play any role in elections. He also predicted the bill will likely be challenged by the European Commission.

"The draft law is a further significant step of the Hungarian regime to autocratise Hungary's domestic political environment, strike down on civil society, and discourage civic activism and political opposition," he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Hegedus also argued that the law will serve as "a campaign tool" for Orbán between now and the June 2024 European elections.

"The so-called 'sovereignty protection law' represents another dark milestone for Hungary. It is a straight-up authoritarian tool to crush dissent, to intimidate and punish critical voices," Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh from the liberal Renew Europe group told EUobserver.

It also represents "a bitter irony," Cseh said, referring to reports over Orbán's interference in elections in Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as to Hungarian investment in media outlets in Slovakia where nationalist Robert Fico recently won elections.

The bill seeks to criminalise parties and candidates running for elections with up to three years in prison for accepting foreign funding — a common practice in the 21st century.

But such restrictions would "strangle" civil society organisations, independent media outlets and opposition parties, according to Cseh.

"The twisted vision of the governing party is that not a penny is spent in the country without Orbán's total control," she said.

The new law coincides with the launch of a controversial billboard campaign and a non-binding national consultation over funding for Ukraine and its EU membership bid.

And it also comes ahead of December talks among EU leaders regarding accession talks with Ukraine and providing economic support to Kyiv to fight Russia — a top-up of the EU budget previously rejected by Orbán.

Orbán's government has been under scrutiny by the EU for years and the EU suspended recovery funds for Hungary over concerns over the rule of law in the country.

But there are growing concerns that Orbán may use Hungary's veto power to block additional aid to Ukraine unless the funds are unblocked.

"The commission must keep the money for Hungary frozen until genuine rule of law reforms are effectively implemented, whilst exploring other ways of financing Ukraine," said Dutch MEP Tineke Strik from the Greens, during a debate in the parliament on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers argue that the sovereignty protection law is yet another proof of Orbán's disregard for the EU's rule-of-law standards.

"The government don't care about complying with the requirements of the EU Commission and thus receiving EU funds as they keep introducing new laws that go openly and directly against our common democratic values and rule of law," Hungarian centre-left opposition MP Ágnes Vadai told EUobserver.

For her part, MEP Cseh has called on the European Commission to challenge the law "without hesitation."

Before it gets approved, the law will be discussed in parliament — where Orbán enjoys a two-thirds majority.

Hungarian sovereignty has never been threatened by the EU and Nato, only by Orbán, Vadai argued.

"The biggest threat to our National sovereignty is Orbán himself together with his system," she said, referring to Orban's close ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin or China.

When asked, a commission spokesperson said that the EU executive is closely following the latest developments and "looking at all angles."

"We have a clear stance when it comes to supporting media freedom, a good environment for civil society and promoting free and fair elections," a commission spokesperson said.


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