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Czech Republic should oppose return of withheld EU funds to Hungary

Why is the issue topical now? Representatives of the five factions of the European Parliament, a significant majority of the total number of European legislators (530 MEPs out of 705), issued a joint statement condemning the current policy of Viktor Orbán’s government. The document rightly points to the recent amendment to the already highly discriminatory law against “gender propaganda” (we wrote here), which is now to allow families from the LGBTQ+ community to report their abuse via an anonymous form. The amendment proved so controversial that it was even vetoed by Hungarian President Katalin Novák, which is highly unusual given her agreeable views with Prime Minister Orbán. However, Parliament has also mentioned another law, forthcoming in the field of education, which would drastically restrict teachers’ employment rights, their freedom of expression and their professional autonomy.

The warning comes shortly after a discussion between the Hungarian Justice Minister and the European Commissioner, Dider Reynders, on Monday 24 April. The meeting was about assessing progress on Hungary’s reforms, which the government hopes to implement by releasing frozen cohesion funds. Although the meeting ended without a major breakthrough, the Hungarian minister soon said that a technical agreement had been reached on the matter. Fidesz can therefore believe that if the Commission blesses the reforms, Hungary will soon be able to get its hands on the money again.

In the document, MEPs therefore call on the Commission to keep the funds frozen in the current situation. According to Parliament, the disintegration of the rule of law in Budapest is continuing unabated and, despite the government’s declared reforms, the situation is getting worse.

What is the context? For years, the actions of the ruling Fidesz have led to the destruction of the values of liberal democracy. For just as long, the Commission and the European Parliament have repeatedly criticised the Hungarian Government’s attitude towards the judiciary or the media, its non-transparent financial administration, or its hostile attitude towards NGOs, civil society representatives and minorities. The European Parliament has even initiated proceedings against Hungary for alleged violations of fundamental EU values.

After the situation did not improve and the situation in the Carpathian Basin rather worsened, the EU proceeded to block the significant cohesion funds that had been earmarked for Hungary for the coming years. The unblocking of the frozen funds was then made conditional by the European Commission on the fulfilment of a number of guarantees, in short, legal guarantees, indicating an attempt to remedy the decline in democratic values in the country. Indeed, in response to these developments, Hungary has prepared proposals for judicial and other reforms to unlock the imaginary treasury and soften the Commission. However, the Commission is still waiting for convincing anti-corruption legislation and a change of trend in government rhetoric.

Why is the topic important for the Czech Republic? Violations of fundamental rights, which the Czech Republic has also committed to uphold at the constitutional level, should not leave us cold under any circumstances. The template-like adoption of Russian legislation, the decline of civil society and freedom of expression, the persecution of minorities and hate campaigns against our allies mean that positive changes in Hungary are definitely out of the question. Even Viktor Orbán’s possible opportunism in the form of concessions or partial reforms does not change this. Against the background of current events, these are mere Potemkin villages.

Rather, Viktor Orbán is currently exacerbating the violation of European values without seeking improvement or change. Thus, allowing access to European funds despite the current situation would send a strong signal of weakness that could encourage other authoritarians to take similar steps. And this could even happen here. The fundamental value pillars of the EU must be protected without compromise. It is also our responsibility to stand up for the foundations of liberal democracy in the Union.

How should the government proceed? The Czech Republic should express its opposition to allowing Hungary to draw on previously frozen cohesion funds in the current situation. In communicating its declared position, the Czech Republic should explain the reasons for such a decision, which are the dismal breakdown of the rule of law and the continuous suppression of fundamental civil rights. The Czech Republic should motivate the Commission to release the funds only after Hungary has met all the required guarantees, from the adoption of anti-corruption laws to the repeal or withdrawal of problematic legislative acts to a general change in the government’s hostile rhetoric. The guarantees must be serious, effective and systemic.