Victory in European Parliament as "Stop Soros" law comes into force
Hungarian civil society groups received a boost on 12th September 2018, when the European Parliament voted by a two-thirds majority to trigger a procedure under Article 7(1) of the Lisbon Treaty, a move which in theory could see Hungary's voting rights within the EU suspended because of a failure to adhere to EU values. The vote was based on a report by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, which in part highlighted the Hungarian government's actions to undermine independent civil society organisations, in particular those supporting migrants. The Sargentini report also highlights threats to the freedom of the press in Hungary.
Reacting to the vote, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, said:
"By triggering the Article 7 procedure, the European Parliament has made it clear that illiberal democracy is against the core values of the European Union. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee welcomes that the EP has validated, with a two-third majority, the long-standing concerns over the Hungarian political system."
Under the Article 7 procedure, the Council of Europe can confirm that a breach of the EU's values has taken place in Hungary, however such a decision requires a unanimity, meaning that there is a risk it could be blocked by just one of Hungary's allies voting against the decision.
As the CIVICUS Monitor previously reported in June 2018 the Hungarian Parliament passed a modified version of the so-called “Stop Soros” legislative package. The new legislation imposed a "special tax" on organisations that "support immigration."
On 24th August, these new special tax regulations went into effect. Attila Mráz, the director of Political Freedoms Project at the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) told CIVICUS Monitor that:
“The new law, which leaves it somewhat of a mystery due to its extremely vague wording whose activities (of what sort) and whose revenues are subject to it, levies a 25% tax on (supposedly) the revenue of those organizations which "show immigration in a positive light."
According to Mráz, while immigration is a matter of legitimate political debate, the new law “serves to stifle that debate by imposing the threat of a huge financial burden on anyone who wishes to maintain and contribute to public, democratic, and even academic discourse on immigration”.
A prime example of the chilling effect of the new regulation is that the Budapest-based Central European University suspended its free and highly reputed education program for registered refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as the administration of an EU-funded grant on migration policy in Central and Southern Europe on the day the new tax kicked in.
On 17th September 2018, three NGOs - Amnesty International Hungary, Migration Aid and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee - said they would not pay the tax. In its statement, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said that, although they believed they were not subject to the tax, the new law would make their "work more difficult as its vague wording could result in arbitrary application of the law. It may also discourage some of our donors not exempt from the law, from financially supporting our work concerning refugees".
The immigration tax was only one of the reasons a number of Hungarian and international civil groups called on MEPs to vote in favour of launching the EU’s Article 7 procedure against Hungary in September. Meanwhile the governing Fidesz party continues its smear campaign against rights organisations. According to them the NGOs signing the letter calling for a "yes" vote “want to flood Europe with migrants” and are on “Soros’s payroll”.
On 1st August 2018, Hir TV, Hungary's last domestically-owned independent TV company was sold to Zsolt Nyerges, an ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This forms part of an ongoing strategy which has seen businesses allied to the governing Fidesz party gaining control over the majority of the media landscape in Hungary. International press freedom organisations are urging European Union officials to condemn the latest developments and strengthen the link between eligibility for funding under the European Union's next Multiannual Financial Framework and respect for media freedom.