No change, more money. On Sunday, September 18, the European Commission threatened to deprive Hungary of 7.5 billion euros in European funding, as long as the country does not solve its corruption problems. Thus, Brussels hopes to prevent part of the public money from ending up in the pockets of certain players in Hungarian political life.
European Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn gave Viktor Orban three months to change the situation, and displays a certain optimism: “The measures proposed (by Hungary) to remedy the situation are in principle likely to respond to the problems identified, if they are properly translated into laws and implemented accordingly.” An ultimatum that falls badly for the regime, which must face a difficult energy crisis.
The European Commission, at the origin of an exceptional procedure launched last April, considers that there are too many “irregularities” and “deficiencies” in the procedures for awarding public contracts, the “abnormally” high proportion of applications unique for these contracts, the lack of control of conflicts of interest and legal proceedings in the event of suspicion of fraud. In short, the government of the ultranationalist Orban is suspected by Brussels of weakening the rule of law and of using European money to enrich its cronies.
Hungary has already undertaken to implement 17 key measures, but the Commission is awaiting results and intends to assess their effectiveness on 19 November next. “We are moving in the right direction. We are continuing the work (…) so that the Hungarian people receive the resources to which they are entitled!”, reacted on Facebook the Hungarian Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, who carried out these last days a tour of several European capitals to plead the cause of his country.
Budapest is struggling to try to escape the ax, but also to convince Brussels to unblock its post-Covid recovery plan (5.8 billion euros in subsidies), as the country faces galloping inflation and the fall of the forint , the national currency. Hungary is the only EU country whose plan has still not received the green light from the European Commission, for the same reasons related to respect for the rule of law. Without an agreement on the Hungarian recovery plan by the end of the year, 70% of the subsidies will be lost.
Among the avenues to fight corruption, Hungary recently announced that it would quickly set up an “independent authority”, responsible for monitoring the use of EU funds, and pledged to improve transparency public markets. Measures must allow citizens to bring a complaint before the courts if they believe that the prosecution has arbitrarily terminated a corruption investigation. The transparency of the legislative process must also be reinforced.
The government of nationalist and ultra-conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban has indicated that laws intended to satisfy the EU will be submitted to the Hungarian parliament from Monday. Their entry into force is scheduled for November. “Last chance for Viktor Orban (…) The time for discussions is over,” tweeted French MEP Valérie Hayer (Renew Europe). German elected official Daniel Freund (Greens) judged that the proposed measures were “insufficient” and would “not prevent Orban and his cronies from stealing European funds”.
Overall, European elected officials are particularly critical of the turn of the regime driven by Orban. The European Parliament estimated on Thursday, in a report voted by a large majority, that Hungary was no longer a true democracy but “an electoral autocracy”, calling on the Commission to “refrain from approving Hungary’s plan that it will not have fully complied with all the recommendations” from Brussels.
But cutting off supplies to Hungary is not unanimous either. Poland assured this Sunday that it will oppose “any move” from Brussels aimed at depriving Hungary of the 7.5 billion euros. The head of the Polish nationalist-populist government, also in conflict with Brussels, which accuses him of not respecting the rule of law, recalled that his Hungarian counterpart and ally Viktor Orban had already prepared “a draft agreement with the European Commission”.
These Budapest compromises come as the Hungarian economy struggles with a weak currency and high inflation – both of which have broken records this year. Also on Saturday, the government indicated that the price caps put in place in the spring for fuel and food will be extended until the end of the year.