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EU Finally Steps Up on Hungary’s Rights Crisis

Commission Launches Enforcement Action Over Curbs on Leading University

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks up during a plenary session at the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels, Belgium April 26, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

Budapest streets full of protesters. International expressions of concern. It seems like everyone these days is worried about where Hungary’s government is heading. But the European Commission, the guardian of the European Union’s treaties, has seemed reluctant to act.

That changed yesterday.

In the April 26 European Parliament session on Hungary, Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans finally sent the message that enough is enough. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban was sitting in the parliament’s plenary, and, over the course of two hours, he heard criticism after criticism – not only from Timmermans but also from dozens of Euro-Parliamentarians, including from the European People’s Party, the political group to which Orban’s Fidesz party belongs.  

On behalf of the commission, Frans Timmermans criticized an April 4 amendment to Hungary’s Higher Education Act that specifically targets the Central European University, and announced that the commission was launching enforcement action against Budapest over the law, which violates EU standards.

Timmermans also took Hungary to task over a national consultation sponsored by the Hungarian government – called, “Let’s Stop Brussels!” – describing its allegations against the EU as “inaccurate.”

The commission’s spine-stiffening is overdue. The Hungarian government has driven the country into an authoritarian slide since it came into power in 2010. While the commission’s moves on the CEU law are a step in the right direction, there are many of others issues that also require its attention.

A March 2017 asylum law allows for the blanket detention of almost all asylum seekers, including children over 14, and legalizes their immediate forced return to the border with Serbia – in violation of several EU laws. Another piece of draft legislation under deliberation in Hungary’s parliament would impose problematic requirements on nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from foreign institutions, similar to the restrictions imposed by Russia’s infamous “foreign agents” law.

There is still much that EU institutions should do to uphold principles and values of the union and to tackle the human rights and rule-of-law crisis unfolding in Hungary. To start with, the European People’s Party should reconsider its political alliance with Fidesz due to clear differences of views on the meaning of EU’s founding values. The commission and EU member states should also make it clear that if Hungary’s government fails to reverse course on problematic laws and policies that threaten EU values, there may be wider consequences including, ultimately, the suspension of its EU voting rights.

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