Hungary’s governing party is cranking up the heat on nongovernmental organizations. With its tight grip on parliament, and having undermined the courts and the media, the Fidesz government doesn’t like being held to account by pesky independent groups. Fidesz is a prime example of the danger of a type of populism that results in a government attacking basic European values like a free civil society. The February 27 hearing in the European Parliament’s Committee for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on the situation of fundamental rights in Hungary couldn’t be more timely.
On February 10, in his state of the union address, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described civil society organizations as one of five major “attacks” on Hungary that the government needs to defend itself against in 2017. He said that international organizations, headed by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and groups backed by him, secretly want to influence domestic politics. On February 21, Orbán announced that there will be a national consultation on each of these five ‘threats’.
Orbán described Soros and his Open Society Foundations as “large bodied predators swimming in our waters,” who through the paid activists want to bring hundreds of thousands of “illegal migrants” into Europe and who relentlessly work to undermine the Hungarian government and parliament. Labelling independent organizations as paid activists trying to topple the government is reminiscent of the Russian government’s style of branding independent groups as foreign agents.
In early January, Szilard Nemeth, the Fidesz party vice president, publicly stated that Hungary will use “all tools at its disposal” to “sweep out” organizations funded by the Hungarian-born Soros as they “serve global capitalists and back political correctness over national governments.” Nemeth said that with Donald Trump’s election as the US president, the timing is right. (Full disclosure: Human Rights Watch is among the many groups around the world that receive funding from Open Society Foundations).
The prime minister’s office named the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International Hungary, all Soros funded, as key “troublemakers.” Nemeth said that part of the “sweep out” plan will require the heads of these organizations to publicly declare their personal assets. The government has not provided any details of how this will work or about sanctions for those who refuse to comply. It’s not the first time Orbán has publicly aired his resentment toward core democratic principles and human rights and toward those who try to safeguard them. In July 2014, during his infamous speech in Romania, he declared that he wants to end liberal democracy in Hungary.
Since 2010, that’s certainly what his government has been busy doing. Step by step, Orbán and his government have taken control of key public institutions - the Constitutional Court, Media Authority, National Judicial Office, Data Commissioner, General Prosecutor, curbed media freedom and gone after independent groups.
Weeks before Orbán’s 2014 speech, the government targeted organizations that received grants from Norway, ordered a raid on their offices, and subjected them to financial inspections that found no financial irregularities. A Budapest court in January 2015 ruled these raids unlawful. Prior to the arbitrary financial inspections, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office published a list of 13 organizations, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International, labelling them “left-leaning” and “problematic.” In fact those three groups have played a critical role in exposing abuses by the government across a wide range of policies and its disregard for the rule of law.
Nor is it the first time the government has publicly attacked Soros and his Open Society Foundations. This is despite the fact that Orbán and leading government officials and members of parliament have generously benefited from Soros’ support when Hungary was transitioning from communism to democracy in the late 80s.
Some may argue that the government criticizing civil society groups is just a part of the rough and tumble of politics.
But considering the direction of travel of the Hungarian government in recent years, its efforts to undermine checks and balances on the executive, and the importance of these groups to public life, there is no cause for complacency.
Unless the EU and other European institutions defend European values, and take steps to support civil society groups that are under attack in Hungary, all of Europe will be the poorer.