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Posts tagged ‘Magyar Land of Hungary’

Hungary approves extra government powers, with no end date

March 30, 2020

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s parliament on Monday approved a bill giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government extraordinary powers during the coronavirus pandemic, and setting no end date for them.

The bill was approved by Orban’s Fidesz party and other government supporters by 137 votes in favor to 53 against. It needed 133 votes to pass. President Janos Ader signed the bill into law shortly after its approval in parliament and it will take effect from Tuesday.

The legislation has been criticized by opposition parties, international institutions and civic groups for failing include an expiration date for the government’s ability to rule by decree. It also includes measures against false information which have raised concerns they they could be used by the government to muzzle independent media.

“The extraordinary measures are related to the pandemic, to its prevention, its elimination and the prevention of the damaging economic consequences,” said Csaba Domotor, a deputy minister in Orban’s Cabinet Office. “A time limit cannot be declared in this situation because there is no one … who can say how many months of struggle we have to prepare for.”

Opposition lawmakers said they were willing to give the government the requested powers, but only if they were set for a certain period, with the possibility of extensions. “The opposition is united on the issue of giving the government powers which are significantly more extensive than the authority in the Constitution,” said Tamas Harangozo, a lawmaker with the opposition Socialist Party.” The opposition’s request is that “the government accept that it can only do this within time limits.”

The human rights chief at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also expressed concerns about the new legislation. “It is clear that states need to act swiftly in order to protect their populations from the COVID-19 pandemic, and I understand that extraordinary measures may be required to do so,” said Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

“However, a state of emergency — wherever it is declared and for whatever reason — must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary.” The opposition criticized as insufficient the government’s economic measures meant to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. While Orban has announced numerous tax breaks and the postponement until 2021 of debt payments by households and companies, critics have cited the lack of direct payments to employers to save jobs. Opposition parties have also called on salaries to be doubled for workers in the health sector.

Orban said the government would announce a package of economic measures on April 6 or 7 to boost growth. He said it would be the largest action of its kind in Hungarian history. A rights group known in part for its advocacy for refugees and asylum-seekers said that checks on the government’s rule by decree would now have to come from external institutions to a greater extent.

“Parliament, as the legislative body representing the people, practically will be in recess from now on. Law will be essentially made by the government,” the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said. “In the absence of the proper function of parliament, civic control of the government and its institutions — especially by the press, civic groups, and human rights watchdogs — becomes more valuable.”

The opposition parties were also critical of the government’s refusal to consider allowing lawmakers to vote from home. Hungary’s Constitution does not allow parliamentary sessions or votes to be held via teleconferencing or other remote methods and the government said it has no plans for a Constitutional amendment needed to create the option.

“If we’re asking the whole country to stay home, then the Hungarian parliament should be able to do the same if the virus situation justifies it,” said independent lawmaker Bernadett Szel. A decree setting restrictions on leaving home, with exceptions for going to work or for essential needs like food shopping, took effect on Saturday.

Hungary declared a state of emergency on March 11 due to the spread of coronavirus. So far 447 cases have been confirmed in the country, with 15 deaths.

Putin to visit EU nation Hungary as Russian influence grows

October 29, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary takes him to the country that is the Kremlin’s strongest beachhead in the European Union and NATO, two groups that generally regard Russia with unease.

The focus of Putin’s trip, which begins Wednesday, will be his meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose disdain for liberal democracy mirrors Putin’s. Orban has fiercely opposed immigration, including building razor-wire fences to divert migrants away from his nation, and limited media freedoms. He has also denounced Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, whom Putin also dislikes.

The relationship also has a strong foundation in economics, especially natural gas. Hungary has long relied on Russia for most of its gas and that dependence is likely to increase when Russia’s Gazprom state gas monopoly completes the Turkstream pipeline that runs under the Black Sea to Turkey, with a branch planned to serve Hungary.

Russian gas currently is transmitted to Turkey in pipelines that cross Ukraine. The contract with Ukraine for transshipment concludes at the end of 2019 and it is unclear if negotiations to renew it will succeed. A dispute between Russia and Ukraine in 2009 led to severe shortages in gas deliveries to EU countries during the dead of winter.

Hungary has decided to stockpile Russian gas. Hungarian Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Peter Szijjarto said after a visit to Moscow this month that his country will accumulate enough reserves to last through next winter.

Having Russian gas skirt Ukraine en route to Hungary would be politically attractive to both Orban and Putin, depriving Kyiv of transit fees. The Russian and Hungarian leaders both are suspicious of Ukraine and reportedly were influential in souring U.S. President Donald Trump on Ukraine. Hungary has been at odds with Ukraine over its refusal to allow ethnic Hungarians there to hold dual citizenship.

Russia also holds sway in Hungary with its contract to upgrade the country’s only nuclear power station, a project largely financed by a Russian line of credit. Hungary has been one of the strongest voices in the EU for backing off on sanctions imposed by the bloc for Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and its support of separatists rebels in eastern Ukraine, which Szijjarto says have deprived Hungary of about $8 billion in export opportunities.

The minister said Putin’s visit is further evidence that Orban is becoming an influential figure abroad rather than being seen as an outlier. “The world is now viewing Viktor Orban as a Central European leader who it is worth listening to, worth paying attention to, and who it is worth meeting,” he was quoted as saying by the MTI news agency. “The next chapter of this story will be written in Budapest on Oct. 30.”

Hungary’s Orban wants anti-migration forces to prevail in EU

January 10, 2019

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s objective for the upcoming European Parliament elections is for “anti-immigration forces” to become a majority in all European Union institutions, including Parliament and the EU’s executive Commission, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Thursday.

Orban, who won a third consecutive term in April with an electoral campaign based on anti-immigration policies, predicted that there would be two civilizations in Europe — one “that builds its future on a mixed Islamic and Christian coexistence” and another in Central Europe that would be only Christian.

“In the next 15-20 years, as well, migration will be the most important question of fate on the continent and, within that, Hungary,” Orban told reporters. Orban also said that he had “great hopes” for budding cooperation between Italy and Poland, both of which oppose immigration, and said he continues to view hard-line Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini as “my own hero.”

Salvini was in Warsaw on Wednesday in an attempt to forge an alliance with Poland’s ruling populists ahead of the European Parliament elections in May, expressing hopes that an “Italian-Polish axis” would replace the current “French-German axis.”

While Salvini said he and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s ruling party leader, agreed on most issues, Polish officials seemed to signal some reservations at hooking up with Salvini, who is seen in Poland as too friendly to Russia.

During his news conference Thursday — an infrequent event — Orban deflected questions on corruption, repeating his defense that he does not involve himself with business matters, and refused to address the growing wealth of his friends and family.

Lorinc Meszaros, a childhood friend who until a few years ago worked as a gas fitter, was named last month by the Hungarian edition of Forbes magazine as Hungary’s wealthiest person, with an estimated fortune of over $1.3 billion.

AP correspondent Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.

Protesters in Hungary reject Orban’s nationalist government

December 21, 2018

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of people marched in anti-government protests Friday in Budapest, upset over labor law changes, increasing corruption and limits on academic freedom under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist government.

The protests, which started last week, have given the country’s fragmented opposition a chance to work together as they challenge Orban, who has led the country with increasing powers since 2010. The satiric Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party hosted a downtown march Friday night in the Hungarian capital with speeches, chants and signs critical of Orban.

One sign said “I want to give birth to a stadium,” poking fun at two of Orban’s preoccupations: Increasing the nation’s birthrate and filling the country with white-elephant sports facilities. Protesters gathered outside Parliament and marched to the offices of President Janos Ader in Buda Castle to rebuke him for signing the labor changes as well as other legislation creating a new court system under government control.

The new courts will hear most cases involving the state, from taxation issues to electoral disputes, so having them under government control creates a sharp conflict of interest and reduces their independence.

Since returning to power eight years ago, Orban has been reshaping Hungary. New laws governing the media and churches have been enacted while the state has an ever-increasing presence in all walks of life, from industry to the arts and sports.

With unorthodox policies, Orban’s governments have sought to centralize control and shore up the Hungarian economy, which a decade ago needed to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. His Fidesz party remains popular, securing a third consecutive two-thirds majority in April.

Emboldened by his latest big majority in parliament, Orban has forced a Budapest-based university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to move most of its programs to Vienna. He retains his fiery rhetoric against migrants and has refused to join a new European Union public prosecutor’s office focusing on fraud and corruption.

However, the recent protests have invigorated the opposition. The catalyst for the protests was a new labor code dubbed the “slave law” by critics and approved by lawmakers on Dec. 12. It would increase the number of overtime hours employers could ask workers to put in voluntarily, essentially bringing back a six-day work week, and allow overtime payments to remain unpaid for up to three years.

“I think the slave law is a spark, with the protest banner saying ‘We’ve had enough’ capturing it best,” said Csaba Toth of the Republikon Institute think tank. On Monday, several opposition lawmakers were physically expelled from the state TV headquarters after spending the night in the building trying to get their demands read on air.

Akos Hadhazy, an independent lawmaker who was among those assaulted by security guards, said Hungary was now closer to becoming a dictatorship. Government officials, meanwhile, called on the opposition to respect the law.

Opposition lawmakers were silenced by parliamentary authorities during the labor law bill’s debate and government-party legislators swept aside in a single vote some 2,800 amendments to the bill. The opposition also attempted to delay the vote by blocking access to the speaker’s podium and blowing whistles and sounding sirens during the vote, all to no avail.

“Whatever we try to do within the normal parliamentary framework — like presenting amendments or draft laws or debating in the committees — falls on deaf ears and everything is forcefully brushed aside,” said Timea Szabo, a lawmaker with the Dialogue party.

“We have reached the point where we simply have to resort to other means, within the frame of non-violence” she said. Lawmakers and supporters from a wide range of parties — from the nationalist Jobbik party to the Socialist Party, as well as the new Momentum party and others — have been participating in the protests.

“For now it’s a fragile cooperation, but we are working to strengthen it,” Szabo said. “The mere fact that we have reached the point at the end of 2018 that we can cooperate with Jobbik on some issues is a great result. Our hope is that in the long term it can result in a new kind of cooperation.”

There have been few effective protests against Orban since 2010, although the government scrapped plans for a tax on internet usage after several rallies in 2014 by mostly students. “There is an emerging unity of the opposition and you can also see the unions and the civil organizations working together. All that might result in something,” Toth said, noting that national elections aren’t scheduled until 2022. “Any attempt to go against the government starts with the opposition solidifying its own base.”

Hadhazy was confident that after a break for the holidays, enthusiasm among government critics would remain strong. “These protests have shown that people are truly very dissatisfied … we are already now preparing for a large protest on January 5,” Hadhazy said.

Gorondi, based in Budapest, reported from Buenos Aires.

Anti-government protesters mass for 5th day in Hungary

December 18, 2018

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A few thousand demonstrators gathered in freezing temperatures outside Hungary’s state broadcaster Monday night in a fifth day of protests against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Lawmakers from all opposition parties took to a temporary podium to declare they would continue protests until they are allowed to read out their demands on state television. The protests were sparked by a new labor law that in essence enables the return of a six-day work week, if an employee agrees, with overtime payments potentially unpaid for up to three years.

But the demands of protesters have expanded to include cleaning up state corruption, creating an independent judiciary and ensuring neutral state media. “We will continue with protests all the while our demands are not read out over state media. We are not going anywhere,” Timea Szabo, a Parliament member for the small, centrist Dialogue party, told the crowd.

“The law has not been trampled on in such a way here for 30 years,” she said, apparently referring to the roughing up of some legislators by security guards at the MTVA building early Monday. Demonstrators repeatedly chanted slogans like “We won’t leave” and “They are lying day and night!”

Legislators charged that police took orders from private security guards in forcing them out of the MTVA building, rather than protect their right to enter a public building. Agnes Vadai of the Democratic Coalition, a center-left party, told The Associated Press that she had been manhandled by security guards.

“This is nonsense,” she said of the lack of help from police officers. “It’s their obligation to protect all Hungarian citizens, regardless of their position.” The group of 10 lawmakers had entered the building insisting on the right to read their five demands live on air, including the revocation of the labor law.

The government has defended the law, saying it will ease the shortage of workers, most especially in the booming auto and manufacturing sectors, and enable employees to earn more money as they wish. Orban’s allies have denounced the protests as the work of liberal groups financed by Hungarian-American financier George Soros. The Open Society Foundations, an organization founded by Soros, again denied that Monday.

“The Hungarian people are protesting against their government because they have legitimate grievances. Nobody believes Viktor Orban’s false assertion that George Soros is behind these protests,” the group said in a statement.

Ukraine’s Hungarian minority threatened by new education law

November 14, 2018

CHOP, Ukraine (AP) — The Hungarian minority in western Ukraine is feeling besieged. A new education law that could practically eliminate the use of Hungarian and other minority languages in schools after the 4th grade is just one of several issues threatening this community of 120,000 people in Transcarpathia, a Ukrainian region that in the past century has been part of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

In February, the headquarters of the minority’s biggest political organization, the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association, or KMKSZ, was firebombed. More recently, mysterious billboards have appeared in the region accusing its politicians of separatism. And a dispute has erupted over the legality of the community acquiring dual Hungarian citizenship.

The incidents have left many worried that even as Ukraine strives to bring its laws and practices closer to European Union standards, its policies for minorities seem to be heading in a far more restrictive direction.

“There is a sort of purposeful policy, which besides narrowing the rights of all minorities, tries to portray the Hungarian minority as the enemy in Ukrainian public opinion,” said Laszlo Brenzovics, the only ethnic Hungarian in the Ukrainian parliament. He called the separatism charges “extraordinarily absurd” and a means to distract from Ukraine’s domestic problems.

Brenzovics’ party, the KMKSZ, has launched its own campaign with bilingual billboards reading “Let’s not allow peace to be destroyed in Transcarpathia!” “This is a peace campaign to calm the mood,” said Livia Balogh, a party official in Chop, a once-booming railroad city of 9,000 people on the border with Hungary. “Hungarians here are mostly surprised and tense but also angry that the minority card is being played.”

With a presidential election expected in March, Ukraine is also facing an ongoing armed conflict on its eastern borders with Russian-backed separatists. Officials say the new language rules in education, to be implemented over several years, serve a unifying purpose.

“Education is the fundament to social cohesion, which is also the fundament of security in the country,” said Anna Novosad, a senior official at Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science. She attributed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 partly to the disintegration and linguistic isolation of the local, mainly Russian-speaking population from the rest of Ukraine.

“This is something that we would like not to repeat in the western part of our country,” Novosad said. Vasyl Filipchuk, a Ukrainian diplomat and chair of the board of the International Center For Policy Studies in the capital Kiev, said the anti-Hungarian campaign was being used to distract voters.

“It’s artificial, manipulative technology” to overshadow the real problems of the people — corruption, lack of jobs and lack of economic prospects, Filipchuk said, adding that the use of patriotic, nationalistic rhetoric is “very dangerous.”

Some of the issues have triggered a diplomatic dispute between Ukraine and Hungary, with Hungary blocking Ukraine’s talks on integration with the European Union and NATO until the language stipulations in the education law are revised. In early October, Ukraine expelled a Hungarian consul after a secret video surfaced of Ukrainian Hungarians taking the oath of Hungarian citizenship. In response, Hungary expelled a Ukrainian consul.

Almost all members of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority live in Transcarpathia — called Zakarpattia Oblast in Ukrainian and Karpatalja in Hungarian. The last census, from 2001, counted 151,000 Hungarians, but unofficial estimates now see around 120,000.

Scores have emigrated to Hungary and western Europe, driven in part by Ukraine’s economic crisis and facilitated by the possibility of acquiring dual Hungarian citizenship, which comes with a European Union passport.

It’s a community that is still strongly tied to Hungary — everyone seems to set their watches to Hungary’s time zone, an hour behind Ukraine’s. Jozsef Kantor, principal of a high school with some 700 students in Velyka Dobron, a village near Chop with a majority Hungarian population, acknowledged that a more modern education law was needed. Still, he lamented the “much harsher and unfavorable education law” now proposed.

At Kantor’s school, which is undergoing renovations paid mostly by subsidies from the Hungarian government, Ukrainian language and literature are the only classes not taught in Hungarian. National authorities seem open to developing Ukrainian language textbooks which would take into account the fact that many Hungarian children enter school without speaking much, if any, Ukrainian.

Many of the school’s graduates are taking advantage of having an EU passport to get their higher education in Hungary or elsewhere abroad. “What affects us negatively is that many of them don’t come back,” Kantor said. “Ultimately, if this continues for 20 or 30 years, there’s a risk that the intellectual class among Hungarians in Transcarpathia will shrink significantly.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has made a name for himself in Europe through his unrelenting anti-immigration and nationalist policies, has made supporting the estimated 2.2 million Hungarians living in neighboring countries — lands that Hungary lost after World War I and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — a key objective.

Subsidies totaling some $60.1 million have been given to institutions, businesses and families abroad since 2017, and Brenzovics, the lawmaker, said the payments have helped establish 3,000 new businesses.

Officials have simplified steps for Hungarians abroad to acquire dual Hungarian citizenship. An initial goal of adding 1 million dual citizens — on top of Hungary’s population of some 10 million — was achieved nearly a year ago.

Orban’s efforts have created a political windfall. In April’s elections, over 95 percent of voters casting ballots by mail — mostly from neighboring countries — backed Orban’s coalition led by his Fidesz party, helping him to a third consecutive term.

In Chop, teacher Zsuzsanna Dzjapko, a Hungarian whose husband’s family is Russian-Ukrainian, has accepted the fact that the best educational prospects for their 11-year-old daughter Rebeka — who speaks all three languages and is a talented singer and musician — are across the border.

“I don’t have hopes that she’ll come back, because as a Hungarian folk singer in this country, she wouldn’t have much of a future,” Dzjapko said in a small apartment shared by three generations. “We hope the times will change, the winds will change and the laws will change, as well.”

Macedonia ex-leader requests asylum in Hungary

November 14, 2018

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled his country to avoid a two-year prison term for corruption, has requested asylum in Hungary, the Hungarian government said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called on Hungary to extradite Gruevski, his bitter political rival. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office said it considers Gruevski’s asylum request “solely a legal issue” and views Macedonia as “an important ally.”

“The Macedonian government of the day is a partner of Hungary in interstate relations, and therefore we in no way wish to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign countries,” Orban’s office said.

For his part, Zaev said he expects the Hungarian government to respect international law by returning Gruevski. “What will be (Macedonia’s) motivation to join the European Union if one of its member states becomes a shelter for criminals?” he said during a news conference in Skopje with visiting Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

Macedonia’s justice ministry spokesman, Vladimir Delov, told The Associated Press that the ministry is preparing the necessary documentation for Gruevski’s extradition. Gruevski, prime minister from 2006-2016, fled after Macedonian police tried to arrest him to serve the prison sentence. He was convicted in May of unlawfully influencing interior ministry officials over the purchase of a luxury vehicle.

Delov said the formal extradition request will take some time as the documents need to be translated into Hungarian. Macedonia has no extradition agreement with Hungary, but can seek application of the European Convention on Extradition that binds members of the Council of Europe — to which both countries belong.

In Hungary, left- and right-wing opposition parties called on the Orban government to extradite Gruevski. Earlier Wednesday, Macedonian authorities temporarily jailed two former government officials on trial for corruption following Gruevski’s flight.

A criminal court on Wednesday ordered former transport minister Mile Janakieski and former government secretary-general Kiril Bozinovski to be held for 30 days. Prosecutors sought their detention amid fears they could also try to flee the country.

They are on trial on charges including corruption over public contracts and election fraud. Gruevski’s flight marks the latest dramatic episode in a volatile confrontation between his conservatives and Zaev’s Social Democrats.

The two sides remain bitterly at odds over a proposed deal to change the republic’s name to North Macedonia and end a dispute with neighboring Greece that would allow Macedonia to join NATO and start accession talks with the European Union.

Western leaders provided Zaev’s government strong backing in supporting the deal, while Russia argued that it was the target of the alliance’s expansion eastward.

Pablo Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary.

Hungary: Ban on living in public areas taking effect

October 14, 2018

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A constitutional amendment that prohibits people from living in public areas takes effect Monday in Hungary, but Ferenc Ribeny’s biggest concern is the fate of his dog. The revision empowers police to issue warnings to anyone seen living rough. Penalties for homeless people who receive four warnings within 90 days include jail time or up to six months in a public works program.

Ribeny, 67, a former restaurant owner, has lived for a year on the streets of Budapest. His companion is Mazli, the terrier he got after his wife’s death seven years ago. Ribeny said he has applied for a job at an animal shelter and inquired about occupying a shipping container that was converted into a home.

“I’m hoping it will work itself out, because otherwise I don’t know what to do,” Ribeny said during a meal at a daytime shelter Sunday. Without Mazli with him, “there’s really no point in living.” The seventh amendment to the Basic Law, as Hungary’s Constitution is now called, was passed by lawmakers in June. Along with cracking down on the homeless, it includes articles meant to protect Hungary’s Christian culture and greatly limit the chances of refugees receiving asylum.

Courts declared an earlier attempt by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to outlaw homelessness to be unconstitutional. Writing the ban into the Basic Law makes it harder to challenge legally. Advocates for the homeless say the ban and the threat of jail time for violators are unlikely to solve the homeless issue, especially when many of those on the streets need medical and psychological care most shelters can’t provide.

More resources are needed to prevent people from becoming homeless and to house the ones that do end up with nowhere to stay, Shelter Foundation director Zoltan Aknai said. “There already have been several unsuccessful attempts for the current homeless care system to absorb those living in the streets,” Aknai said. “Now, authorities are trying to achieve this with tougher measures.”

The Hungarian government says 9,800 places are available nationwide in shelters for overnight stays and 19,000 in total and recently allocated 9.1 billion forints ($32.2 million) to help the homeless. Unofficial estimates say Budapest’s homeless population is of 30,000.

“We are preparing to provide extra assistance to all those living in the streets,” Ministry of Human Resources State Secretary Bence Retvari said about government efforts before winter arrives. Jutka Lakatos lives in a hut near an outlying industrial area with her husband, five dogs and other animals. She earns about $340 a month cleaning offices, considers herself too old to apply for public housing and says she wants to avoid the “inhumane” conditions of homeless shelters.

“I much prefer to choose the free life,” said Lakatos, 64, a member of homeless advocacy group A Varos Mindenkie (The City Is For All.) “I don’t have to fear lying on the floor like a herring and that if I roll over then 30 other people also have to roll over.”

She hopes the constitutional amendment that outlaws living in public places won’t be enforced strictly. “We trust that after an initial enthusiasm, they will acknowledge that it is totally pointless and nothing will come of it,” Lakatos said.

EU lawmakers move to punish Hungary over rule of law

September 12, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a rare political setback Wednesday as European Union lawmakers voted to pursue unprecedented action against his government for allegedly undermining the bloc’s democratic values and rule of law. Hungary called the action fraudulent and vowed to challenge it.

Despite the official rebuke, Orban is showing no signs of compromise. While he seeks to keep his ruling Fidesz party within the conservative European People’s Party, or EPP, the largest and most powerful group in the European assembly, its possible ouster may push him closer to other far-right groups in Europe, like the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) or France’s National Rally led by Marine le Pen.

The lawmakers voted 448-197 in favor of a report recommending the launch of a so-called Article 7 procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Hungary’s EU voting rights. Needing a two-thirds majority to pass, it was approved by 69.4 percent of the lawmakers.

For years, Orban had been able to deflect much of the international condemnation aimed at him. Critics say Hungary’s electoral system favors the governing parties; media freedoms and judicial independence are dwindling; corruption and the enrichment of Orban allies with EU and state funds are on the rise; asylum-seekers and refugees are mistreated; and there are efforts to limit the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

While Orban occasionally made minor amendments to disputed laws and policies to appease the EU, the essence of his efforts to centralize power within his own ever-expanding office has not really changed since he returned to government in 2010 with a two-thirds majority. Hungary quickly adopted a new constitution following eight calamitous years of Socialist Party governments that led the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

“Orban will continue to represent the hard-line policies sliding toward an authoritarian regime, as until now,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, co-director of Policy Solutions, a political research institute in Budapest. “Should he exit the EPP, he may believe that he has an even freer hand to bring increasingly restrictive policies which constrict the democratic environment.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, echoing Orban’s longtime position that allowed him to win a third consecutive term in April, called the vote “petty revenge” against Hungary for its tough anti-migrant policies.

“This decision condemning Hungary and the Hungarian people was made because we Hungarians have demonstrated that migration is not a necessary process and that migration can be stopped,” Szijjarto said in Budapest.

On Orban’s orders, fences were built in 2015 on Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to divert the flow of migrants, and the country has adopted increasingly restrictive asylum rules. Orban has framed the migration issue, which he predicts will be the main theme of European elections next year, as one that goes beyond party lines. He met with Italian Interior Minister Mateo Salvini last month in Milan. He referred to Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party and a staunch opponent of migration, as his “hero.”

If Orban and his Fidesz party are ousted from the EPP, he is likely to look to strengthen his links to the far-right in Europe. For now, Orban says he does not want to leave the EPP but simply reform it into a party opposing migration.

“Orban will invest even more energies than until now to build a ‘Plan B’ with the extreme-right leaders in Europe, from Salvini to Le Pen to Germany’s AfD,” said Biro-Nagy. “Orban’s true friends are no longer in the EPP; his true friends are in the European extreme-right.”

Hungary claimed its defeat in the European Parliament involved “massive fraud” since 48 abstentions weren’t counted in the final tally, which made it easier to reach the needed majority. Szijjarto said Hungary was considering legal options to appeal the result.

However, according to Article 354 of the Lisbon Treaty, reforms adopted in 2007 after the EU expanded from 15 to 27 members, “for the purposes of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, the European Parliament shall act by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast.” This would seemingly exclude abstentions from the tally.

Orban’s critics and opponents were elated by the outcome. Judith Sargentini, who presented the report prepared by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, called it “a historic result for Hungarian and for European citizens.”

“Viktor Orban’s government has been leading the charge against European values by silencing independent media, replacing critical judges, and putting academia on a leash,” Sargentini said. “The Hungarian people deserve better. They deserve freedom of speech, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and equality, all of which are enshrined in the European treaties.”

Several NGOs targeted by the Orban government with restrictive rules — including a special tax on activities considered as promoting immigration and the criminalization of the aiding of asylum-seekers and refugees — also hailed the vote.

“We welcome the European Parliament’s decision to defend the rule of law and confront the Hungarian government’s attempts to shut down civil society and independent voices in the media and academia,” said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute. “MEPs across the political spectrum have taken a historic stand in defending the EU’s democratic values and the rights of its citizens.”

Grabbe’s organization is part of the Open Society Foundations set up by Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, an ideological opponent of Orban and blamed by the Hungarian leader for promoting mass immigration into Europe. Soros repeatedly has denied the allegations.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which offers legal aid to asylum seekers and refugees and has been a frequent target of Orban’s criticism, said the EU vote “has made it clear that illiberal democracy is against the core values of the European Union.”

Even EPP leader Manfred Weber, who earlier was supportive of Orban and is seeking to become the European Commission president next year, said he had voted for triggering Article 7. “I have always been in favor of building bridges and I want to continue to do so, but yesterday (Tuesday) I didn’t see any readiness from the Hungarian PM to make a move towards his EU partners and address our concerns,” Weber tweeted.

While Weber had urged him to show a willingness to compromise on some issues, Orban said his policies wouldn’t change. “I have nothing to compromise about since the questions they objected to were decided by the Hungarian people,” Orban said Tuesday in Strasbourg, France, after the debate on Hungary. “There is nothing to talk about.”

Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary.

Hungary’s leader rejects criticism in EU parliament debate

September 11, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — Hungary’s prime minister on Tuesday strongly rejected criticism of his government’s policies, as European Union lawmakers debated whether to sanction Budapest for allegedly undermining the bloc’s values.

The European Parliament was debating whether Hungary should face action over its policies on migration, the media, corruption and civil society that opponents say are against the EU’s democratic values and the rule of law.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as expected, claimed during the debate in Strasbourg, France, that Hungary was being attacked for its tough anti-immigration stance. “This report does not give respect to the Hungarian nation,” Orban told the lawmakers. “You think you know better than the Hungarian people what the Hungarian people need.”

Orban said that political sanctions being considered against Hungary would be the first time in the EU that “a community condemns its own border guards.” “I reject that the European Parliament’s forces supporting immigration and migrants threaten, blackmail and with untrue accusations defame Hungary and the Hungarian people,” he said during a feisty speech.

“Whatever decision you make, Hungary will not give in to extortion, Hungary will defend its borders, will stop illegal migration and will protect its rights, if needed, from you, too.” Lawmakers will vote Wednesday on a proposal to launch the rule-of-law procedure, based on a report by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, that could lead to Hungary losing its EU voting rights under a process known as Article 7.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, launched Article 7 proceedings against Poland over an alleged erosion of judicial independence late last year. But Hungary’s case is the first time that the EU parliament is considering calling for the launch of the sanctions process for a member state because of a perceived threat to European values.

Orban said the EU lawmakers had been given a 108-page documents detailing what the Hungarian government viewed as “basic errors” in the report on Hungary drafted by Judith Sargentini, a Dutch politician in the European Green Party.

For years, Orban has successfully deflected much of the international condemnation about Hungary’s electoral system, media freedoms, independence of the judiciary, mistreatment of asylum-seekers and refugees and limitations on the functioning of non-governmental organizations, but criticism has been growing even within the European People’s Party, to which his Fidesz party belongs.

EPP leader Manfred Weber, nominally an Orban political ally in the assembly, conceded that “the start of a dialogue based on Article 7 could be needed.” Weber said the EPP would decide later Tuesday whether to support the Article 7 action. Should the EPP move against it, Fidesz would be under huge pressure to leave the group.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has been supervising Article 7 discussions with Poland, said he shared the findings in the parliamentary report. “Democracy in our member states and in our European Union cannot exist without the rule of law,” Timmermans said, and went on to list concerns about fundamental rights, corruption in Hungary and the treatment of migrants.

Timmermans said the European Commission has launched “audits and other investigations” into the alleged misuse in Hungary of EU funds. “The commission will not hesitate to take further action if necessary. My promise to you is that we will be relentless,” he told the lawmakers.

Timmermans also attacked Orban for attempting to turn criticism of his government into an attack on Hungary. “To say that criticizing laws, criticizing the government would amount to criticizing a nation or a people, frankly speaking Mr. Orban, that’s the coward’s way out,” Timmermans said near the end of the debate. “Don’t try to deflect the attention from criticism of the actions of your government by saying that those who criticize your government attack your nation or your people.”

Socialist leader Udo Bullmann branded Orban “the head of the most corrupt government here inside the European Union,” while liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt described the Hungarian leader as “the seed of discord that will ultimately destroy our European project.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told ORF television on Monday that his Austrian People’s Party — like Fidesz, a member of the EPP, the biggest and most powerful party group in the assembly — would vote in favor of opening Article 7 proceedings against Hungary.

“There are no compromises on the rule of law,” Kurz said. “Fundamental values have to be protected.” Despite the criticism, Orban said he was “readying to support the EPP” in next year’s European Parliament elections.

“We are not going to leave the EPP,” Orban said. “We are staying and we are fighting.” Asked about his expectations about the result of Wednesday’s vote on the report, Orban said he was sure it would gather the two-thirds support needed for approval and then attempts would be made to expel Fidesz from the EPP. “The decision has been made,” Orban said.

Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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