Hungary optimistic over swift end to ‘absurd’ EU rule-of-law row

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Hungary believes it can end an acrimonious EU disciplinary dispute by the end of the year, insisting other member states are tiring of a stand-off that is driving a wedge between eastern Europe and the rest of the bloc.

Judit Varga, the Hungarian justice minister, told the Financial Times in an interview that the so-called Article 7 proceedings against Budapest were “absurd” and that a resolution of the case within months would be “timely”.

“At the end of the day, I think member states are also getting tired of this ongoing procedure,” she said.

Ms Varga also suggested the case against Hungary was solidifying domestic support for Viktor Orban’s government.

“In Hungary [Article 7] has such a big, emotional unification power not only for the country, but also for our region . . . we all know why this witch-hunt is going on,” she said.

At a congress of Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party on Sunday, the prime minister said: “This is our country, our home and our life and no one else but Hungarians can decide about that.”

Hungary was hit with the Article 7 case last year after the government introduced new laws on the judiciary, media and foreign universities. It became the second nation from eastern Europe to face sanctions because of concern in Brussels over abuse of the rule of law, a fundamental EU tenet. A case against Poland has been running since 2017.

The ultimate sanction against either Budapest or Warsaw would be a suspension of their voting rights. But this would require unanimous agreement among EU states, and Hungary and Poland have said they would veto such a move against the other.

The Hungary case will be a test of member states’ appetites to spend time and risk internal clashes by pursuing the Article 7 procedure aggressively, especially if Budapest is keen to close the matter and is willing to make limited concessions.

The Hungary matter also has added potential for political disputes. Unlike the Poland case, which was started by the European Commission, it was launched by the European Parliament and is founded on a report written by a Green MEP, rather than research by the EU executive.

Ms Varga insisted that the parliament had “unfairly” pursued Hungary “because we are against the mainstream in migration”.

Closing Article 7 would be a “huge symbolic victory for the Hungarian government”, and a blow for Hungary’s political and civic opposition forces, said Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

“It would be recognition that what happened in Hungary since 2010 [when Viktor Orban began his second term as premier] was all right and perfect.”

Ms Varga also hit out at proposals being debated in Brussels to link EU funding in the next budget cycle to rule-of-law benchmarks, saying they would mean “a lot of dividing lines in member states”.

She said proposed criteria defining when a member state could lose funding were too vague and would contribute to “big legal uncertainty for the whole EU”.

Ms Varga said the draft rule would give the European Commission wide latitude in assessing whether a country had observed the rule of law. To reverse a decision revoking funding, the affected country would need to convince a four-fifths majority of EU members to lift restrictions.

“It gives such a big power for the European Commission without any kind of treaty basis,” she said. “Too much political attention is around rule of law. Rule of law is a constitutional principle. It needs more legal attention and less political attention.”

Since becoming justice minister in July, Ms Varga has been a vocal champion of Mr Orban’s nationalist politics, including vehement opposition to migration. Since 1m migrants passed through the EU in 2015, Budapest has rejected EU resettlement quotas, built a fence on its southern border and tightened asylum rules so much that in the past year fewer than two dozen people have been granted asylum, according to Eurostat.

Last year the Hungarian parliament passed a package of laws which criminalised assistance to asylum seekers. Ms Varga dismissed criticism of the legislation as unfounded, but in July, the commission initiated a challenge to the laws at the European Court of Justice.

Brussels also started infringement proceedings over the government’s practice of denying food to adult migrants who had been denied asylum but remained in the country’s so-called “transit zones”.

Ms Varga maintained that migrants in Hungarian custody had access to social workers at all hours and were able to buy their own food.

She also criticised human rights lawyers who challenged the government on its migration policy. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled 17 times under its emergency procedures that Budapest must feed individuals in the transit zones, even if their asylum claim has been denied.

“I don’t think these people would go to [the ECHR in] Strasbourg if they had not had some bona fide helpers who try to find a way to attack the government,” said Ms Varga, referencing human rights organisations that provide legal aid.

Marta Pardavi, a co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which has provided legal assistance to the food-deprived migrants, said: “It is so outrageous that this is happening in Europe in 2019 today. If the government doesn’t like it, there is an easy way out: to start complying with human rights standards.”

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels