Hungary and E.U. Lock Horns Over Sovereignty Law

Just days after a major showdown between the European Union and Hungary over aid to Ukraine, the European Commission on Wednesday announced it was opening a new disciplinary procedure against the Hungarian government over recently passed legislation that focuses on interactions deemed subversive between foreigners and Hungarians.

The move comes on top of several other open disciplinary procedures against Hungary that the European Commission, the E.U. executive branch, has been pursuing against the government of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban.

It’s likely to cause anger in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, following the E.U. summit last week at which Mr. Orban grudgingly agreed to release funding for Ukraine. E.U. leaders, in a nod to his complaints that he was being singled out by the bloc’s executive branch, briefly mentioned in a statement that the commission must be proportionate and fair in its punishment of member states seen to be in breach of E.U. law.

Mr. Orban has said his battles with the commission pit a “woke globalist Goliath” against Hungary’s “David” and has maintained that the European Union is out to punish him for pursuing a Christian conservative agenda.

E.U.-Hungary relations, long strained, hit bottom after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Mr. Orban, the only ally President Vladimir Putin of Russia has in the bloc, emerged as an obstacle to Europe’s united response to the war, watering down sanctions against Russia and holding up financial aid to Ukraine. Mr. Orban says his disagreements with the European Union’s support for Ukraine are based on principle and that he believes Russia poses no threat to European security.

Other battles between the commission and Hungary focus on a number of Mr. Orban’s policies relating to the independence of the courts, corruption, and L.G.B.T.Q. rights that the commission believe contravene E.U. law.

Disciplinary procedures imposed by the European Union can bite.

The European Commission continues to block Hungary from accessing some 20 billion euros, or $21.5 billion, in E.U. funding on the basis of the violations it has cited. Critics say that Mr. Orban has used his veto, which E.U. countries have the right to use for important decisions, to push the bloc to release some of that money — a claim he has denied.

Asked whether the commission would be releasing any of the frozen E.U. funds to Hungary, Arianna Podesta, a spokeswoman, told journalists on Wednesday: “We are not there yet.”

The action by the commission on Wednesday centers on recently passed legislation in Hungary that seeks to punish interactions between Hungarian individuals or organizations, and foreigners or foreign groups that a newly created Office for the Defense of Sovereignty deems subversive.

Civil society organizations have warned that the vague wording of the law, the lack of a clear legal process, as well as extensive powers granted to the new authority — including access to intelligence data — mean that it could target anyone who is getting foreign funding, including from the European Union, such as journalists or advocacy groups.

“The outcome of these investigations could be a McCarthy Committee-style process,” said Marta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian office of the Helsinki Committee, a human-rights watchdog. Ms. Pardavi was referring to the Cold War-era committee set up by a U.S. senator, Joseph McCarthy, to investigate supposed communists, which upended the lives of innocent people.

The Hungarian authorities have argued that the law is necessary to “protect constitutional identity,” because the country’s sovereignty was “increasingly under attack” by hostile, unspecified foreign interests.

Speaking to reporters last month, Mate Kocsis, the parliamentary leader of Mr. Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, said that the legislation would shield Hungary from E.U. “interference” in the country’s economic sovereignty, and from “the gender ideology imposed on us.”

In a prelude to the new legislation, Hungarian authorities previously targeted George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist for progressive causes, pushing him out of Hungarian public life.

In 2018, under intense political pressure and threat of legal action, Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Central European University, founded in Hungary after the collapse of the Soviet Union to champion the principles of democracy, left the country. The European Court of Justice ruled the ouster of the university illegal in 2020.

“The backdrop to this is the accelerating illiberal backsliding, but this is much more concerning,” said Ms. Pardavi of the Helsinki Committee. “This law wants to send out a signal that as Hungarians who participate in European public debate and national public debate, you can be surveilled and branded in public,” she added.

In a statement on Wednesday, the European Commission said it had opened the disciplinary procedure after “a thorough assessment” of the Hungarian legislation, adding that it “violates several provisions” of European law, including internal market rules, democratic values and electoral rights. It also said that the legislation ran counter to fundamental rights such as the right to a fair trial and to freedom of association.

Hungary has two months to reply. The disciplinary procedure could result in the commission taking Hungary to the European Union’s top court and imposing financial penalties.

In a furious response, Zoltan Kovacs, Hungary’s secretary for international communication, slammed the latest decision by the commission, focusing his ire in good part on Mr. Soros.

“Brussels and the masters of the dollar left are attacking the Sovereignty Protection Act precisely because it is designed to prevent foreign influence through Soros’s rolling dollars,” he said in a social media post.

The United States in December expressed similar concern about the Office for the Defense of Sovereignty, saying that it “equips the Hungarian government with draconian tools that can be used to intimidate and punish those with views not shared by the ruling party.”

“This new law is inconsistent with our shared values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law” it added.

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest.

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