The Hungarian government’s anti-democratic tendencies are on show again. In actions unworthy of an EU member state, the government this week conducted surprise financial inspections on some nongovernmental organizations that administer foreign donor money. This happened after the prime minister’s office published a list smearing 13 other NGOs that receive some of the funds as “left-leaning” and “problematic.”

The inspections are linked to an ongoing dispute between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments, with Budapest accusing Oslo of interfering in Hungarian political affairs through NGO funding to Hungarian civil society.

In late May, the state secretary at the prime minister’s office published a list, which included 13 of the 128 NGOs that receive funds from Norway. The 13 include the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), one of the country’s leading human rights NGOs and a frequent critic of the government. Those listed were criticized as “left-leaning” and “problematic.” The prime minister’s office subsequently ordered a full-scale investigation of Norwegian NGO funding. On June 2, officials from the Government Control Office, which conducts financial inspections, paid a visit to three members of the four-member NGO consortium that distributes Norway’s grants to civil society. One had received a week of advance notice. In the case of the two others, government officials appeared unannounced requesting various documents.

While Norway can presumably withstand pressure from the Hungarian government, Hungarian NGOs are far more vulnerable. The organizations targeted are well-known and respected human rights, democracy, and anti-corruption organizations. In addition to HCLU, they include Transparency International and NANE, a women’s rights organization. The nature of the inspections and public smearing of the NGOs understandably creates concerns in Hungarian civil society about what is next, particularly given the government’s track record of seeking to weaken checks and balances on the executive. 

Protecting and supporting human rights defenders is supposed to lie at the core of the European Union’s values. How can the EU be credible in pressing countries around the world if it allows its own member states to flout those values? So far Brussels has been silent on this issue. Its response matters to civil society groups everywhere.