The European Commission has launched the new rule of law disciplinary procedure against Hungary for the first time, two days after nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a fourth landslide victory in the parliamentary elections.
Ursula von der Leyen, chair of the commission, told the European Parliament Tuesday that Budapest had been informed of the decision and “we will now send the formal notification letter to launch the conditionality mechanism”.
The untested mechanism, designed to prevent EU funds being siphoned off by countries reneging on the rule of law, was agreed by the 27 EU leaders at the end of 2020 and could ultimately deprive Budapest of more of EUR 40 billion in EU payments.
” That happens. Ultimately!” tweeted the German Green MEP Daniel Freund, vocal critic of Orbán and the commission’s reluctance to act on his democratic backsliding. Von de Leyen in particular had been accused of dragging her feet on the issue.
The move followed a shock in Brussels after Orbán attacked ‘opponents’ – including ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ but also Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy – in his victory speech, hours after gruesome footage surfaced. emerged from atrocities in Bucha, near kyiv.
Few EU members offered their congratulations after the Hungarian prime minister’s victory, which followed years of criticism that he was undermining liberal democratic rights and values, and accusations that he was using funds from the bloc to enrich its associates.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin, however, on Monday praised Orbán, a longtime Kremlin ally, saying “the further development of a bilateral partnership is fully in line with the interests of the peoples of Russia and Hungary.”
Prominent anti-EU politicians, including Britain’s Nigel Farage, France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, were quick to congratulate Orbán. “When the people vote, the people win,” Le Pen tweeted.
Although it takes time to finalize the internal work on the sanction, critics of the Orbán regime say the committee’s decision alone could have a quick impact, making it harder for Budapest to borrow money , for example.
Orbán, in power since 2010, has tightened the noose around academics, NGOs and the media, while restricting the freedoms of migrants and homosexuals. There have also been multiple allegations that EU funds have been diverted to Orbán’s friends and family.
Last month, the European Court of Justice dismissed complaints about the mechanism from Hungary and Poland, whose ruling Law and Justice party is in a long-running battle with Brussels over judicial independence, increasing pressure on the commission to act.
In a major step in the battle for the rule of law in the EU, the bloc’s highest court has dismissed the countries’ cases ‘in their entirety’, confirming that EU member states can be starved of funds Europeans when they do not respect democratic standards.
EU values, such as the rule of law, “define the very identity of the European Union as a legal order”, the court said. “Respect for these values cannot be reduced to an obligation that a candidate State must fulfill in order to join the European Union and which it may disregard after its accession.
The law aims to protect against fraud against the EU budget, rather than all breaches of the rule of law. It has gained strong support from Western European governments who are net contributors to the EU budget.
But it has been criticized by Hungary and Poland, both net recipients of EU funds, which have received billions of euros since joining the bloc in 2004 to improve public infrastructure, fund universities and support farmers.