EU urged to suspend funds to Hungary over ‘grave breaches of the rule of law’

Action follows Viktor Orbán passing law banning LGBT content in schools and mishandling of EU funds

Ursula von der Leyen is being urged to suspend EU funds to Hungary to force Viktor Orbán to address concerns over politicised courts and corruption.

MEPs who work on the European parliament’s budgetary control committee are calling on the European Commission president to use a newly created EU law to freeze payments to Hungary for “grave breaches of the rule of law”.

It is the latest salvo against the Hungarian prime minister, who last month faced unprecedented criticism from fellow EU leaders over a law that bans the depiction of gay people in educational material. The European parliament is expected to condemn that law in a resolution on Thursday that will urge the commission to launch a fast-track legal case against Hungary over discrimination against LGBT people.

Long before the Hungarian parliament passed the controversial LGBT law, EU member states and MEPs were alarmed by Hungary’s spending of EU funds, including a contract for street lights awarded to Orbán’s son-in law, as well as a vintage train to Orbán’s home village.

The MEPs base their case on a report by three academics, who conclude that “grave breaches of the rule of law” mean the EU executive is legally justified in suspending payments to Hungary to protect EU taxpayers.

“The lack of transparent management of EU funds, the lack of an effective national prosecution service and the lack of guarantees of judicial independence show that Hungary has already egregiously violated basic rule-of-law principles,” states the report drafted by three professors in EU law and politics.

The report highlights laboratories in 43 schools that cost €1m (£850,000) each and were part funded by the European social fund. A European Commission investigation found that each classroom was charged separately for the development of textbooks, even though all used the same book. Brussels asked for some money to be repaid after concluding that the Hungarian authorities had not corrected several spending “irregularities”.

“What we want is for the rule of law to function in Hungary, not because we have a sanctions fetish,” said German Green MEP Daniel Freund, who commissioned the report. “We basically want the re-establishment of the rule of law.”

The MEPs are not suggesting a particular amount of money to be frozen – in 2018 Hungary received €6.3bn from the EU, equivalent to nearly 5% of its economy. The Hungarian government has requested a further €7.2bn from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund.

It would be up to the commission to decide which EU payments to freeze, Freund said. “It should not be ordinary Hungarian citizens that suffer from this, it should punish the government, so the commission would have to identify the right budget lines,” said the MEP, who conceded that the decision would not be easy.

“I think the commission has to explain to everyone else why billions and billions of your taxpayer money is going to Hungary when there is no management and control system that works on the ground,” he said.

Any attempt to halt payments to an EU country over democratic checks and balances would be a test case for the EU’s rule of law “conditionality” regulation. Hungary’s government is challenging the law in the European court of justice, prompting concerns that the commission may be reluctant to act.

A European Commission spokesperson said: “The regulation entered into force on 1 January 2021 and the commission has been monitoring possible breaches of the rule-of-law principles that would be relevant under the regulation since day one.”

Orbán was this week was named a “press freedom predator” by Reporters Without Borders.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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