The European Union wasted no time. No sooner had the final results of Hungary’s parliamentary elections been finalised—once again giving a comfortable majority to Viktor Orbán and Fidesz—when the sentence fell, confirming the withdrawal of European funds from Hungary for failure to respect the rule of law under the ‘conditionality mechanism.’
Beyond the grievances of the rule of law, the Commission’s criticisms of the Hungarian government also concern the insufficient treatment of corruption. In November, the Commission expressed its concerns about public procurement, conflicts of interest, and corruption. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reported that Hungary and EU institutions had not managed to find common ground. Hungary’s answers were not considered satisfactory and would force Brussels to take the next step.
EU Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn “spoke with the Hungarian authorities on Tuesday and informed them that we will now send the letter of formal notice to activate the mechanism. This triggers a procedure with specific deadlines,” Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament.
Ursula von der Leyen’s announcement to parliamentarians in Strasbourg was greeted with loud applause, with some MEPs saying the mechanism should have been implemented earlier. German Green MEP Rasmus Andresen even considers that the European “laxity” applied to Orbán has allowed him to prosper unduly, which would partly explain his success in the last elections:
One of the reasons why Orbán is as strong as he is, is because many in Brussels had not learned lessons in the past and actually supported him in the past and now we really need to speed up on issues like the rule of law mechanism, but also when it comes to other sanctions we can do against Hungary and Viktor Orbán.
The principle of the conditionality mechanism was first approved in December 2020. At the time, Hungary and Poland voiced their disapproval, threatening to block the EU budget with their veto. The two countries then took the matter to the European Court of Justice, which ruled in mid-February that the EU institutions had every right to withhold funds to pressure member states into compliance.
Questions of bias by European institutions towards Hungary become obvious, given the timing. Ursula von der Leyen’s decision to accelerate the procedure following Orbán’s electoral triumph on Sunday, April 3rd, could easily be seen as sanctions. Likewise, the accusations of corruption levelled at Hungary give the impression of a double standard, since the Commission president herself is subject to serious accusations of conflicts of interest. Most notably, there has been no reaction from European institutions toward the scandals occuring in France: the French National Financial Prosecutor’s Office has just announced its launch into an investigation, feed by reports of money laundering, aggravated by tax fraud, in which the French government is caught up in a consultancy affair that is poisoning the end of Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term.
On the Hungarian side, the spiteful intention behind the Brussels manoeuvre is not in doubt. Gergely Gulyás, the head of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, “asked the European Commission not to punish Hungarian voters for not expressing an opinion to Brussels’ liking during the elections on Sunday, 3 April.”