Hungarian Parliament Night Budapest.” Public domain. Pixabay.

May 17, 2017; Reuters

European leaders are finally pushing back against Hungary’s crackdown on civil society as the European Union (EU) parliament condemned the country’s “serious deterioration of rule of law and democracy” yesterday in an official resolution.

It’s unlikely that the process will result in the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the European Council, but the action sends a signal to Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán.

As NPQ reported last month, Orbán has been creating and riding a wave of nationalist, anti-refugee sentiment to consolidate power since 2010. Legislation passed by the right-wing Fidesz government as part of their self-proclaimed “spring offensive” puts the popular George Soros-funded Central European University at risk with tighter regulations.

Thousands of young people protested the new law targeting foreign universities, which was seen as an authoritarian attack on academic freedom, and many called for the EU to respond. Orbán’s political party saw a sharp drop in voter support following the widespread protests, according to Politico.

According to a press release from the European Parliament, “(MEPs) [Members of the European Parliament] say that Hungary’s current fundamental rights situation justifies launching the formal procedure to determine whether there is a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of EU values by a Member State.”

The resolution calls for:

  • The launching of Article 7(1). MEPs instruct the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to draw up a formal resolution for a plenary vote;
  • The Hungarian Government to repeal laws tightening rules against asylum-seekers and non-governmental organizations, and to reach an agreement with the US authorities, making it possible for Central European University to remain in Budapest as a free institution;
  • The European Commission to strictly monitor the use of EU funds by the Hungarian Government.

Article 7 of the EU Treaty allows the member governments to ask a member state to correct a breach of EU values, according to Reuters. If that recommendation is ignored, the other 27 states can decide to suspend its voting rights. However, the vote must be unanimous, and “the right-wing government in Poland, which is currently under the EU’s rule of law monitoring procedure over its own actions, would be expected to veto any action against Hungary.”

Further, Poland has yet to have its voting rights revoked despite being monitored for more than a year. Earlier this year, human rights watchdogs called for the EU Commission to launch the third and final state of the rule of law procedure under Article 7.

The same advocates hailed yesterday’s EU vote as a step in the right direction:

“Today the European Parliament marked out a clear red line on the protection of rights, which European governments simply cannot cross,” Amnesty International said in a press release.

“The Hungarian government must hear this loud and clear and bring itself back into line with EU founding principles, and refrain itself from adopting new laws attempting to silence civil society, including the draft Law on the transparency of organizations funded from abroad.”

NPQ has reported widely on crackdowns on NGOs with foreign funding in countries like India, Turkey, and many others. And, a recent article in The Conversation makes the case that these happenings are actually part of a documented trend:

Targeting funding is becoming an increasingly widely used tactic to restrict civil society. The International Centre for Non-Profit Law found that 36 percent of restrictive civil society laws enacted globally between 2012 and 2015 targeted international funding.

A UN Human Rights Council Resolution adopted in 2016 had already expressed concerns about the trend in funding restrictions. Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, an expert in the field, describes the attacks on foreign funding as usually being the “leading edge of wider crackdowns on civil society.”

While is heartening to see the EU to step up in support of civil society, it’s a very long road ahead for Hungary to receive any sanctions of consequence.—Anna Berry