EU ministers start formal hearing on Hungary

Despite Budapest's objections the disciplinary procedure will continue

Photo: EPA Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga (L) and Finnish Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen in Brussels.

The EU affairs ministers, meeting in Brussels on Monday, started a first formal hearing over alleged breaches of the bloc's values and the rule of law in Hungary. Hungarian PM Viktor Orban's moves to restrict free media, judges, academics, minorities and rights groups rose concerns of eroding the democracy in the ex-communist country. Orban, in power since 2010, also angered the EU with his harsh anti-immigration stance.

The hearing was part of a probe by the EU under the so-called Article 7, which could lead to the suspension of Budapest's EU voting rights if all other capitals agreed. The EU’s most serious disciplinary procedure was triggered last year by the European Parliament. "Without respect for the rule of law there is no EU. This is the very foundation on which the EU was built," European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who has led the probes by the bloc's executive both against Hungary and Poland, said.

Speaking for both Paris and Berlin, the French EU minister Amelie de Montchalin said the situation in Hungary was "worrying." "When we speak of the independence of judges, the freedom of the media, when we speak of the protection of minorities, academic freedom ... it reminds us of our identity, of our values," she said.

„The EU is like a family in many regards. And in a family there has to be a common set of rules ... otherwise it cannot work. And rule of law is a foundation of that," Austria's EU affairs minister Alexander Schallenberg said.

But, offering Budapest a clear lifeline, Poland's EU minister Konrad Szymanski pointed out that Warsaw did not believe Orban's policies constituted any systemic risk for democratic standards. Poland is also in the European Parliament's bad list for allegedly eroding the rule of law.

Hungary itself continues to state that EU critics are politically motivated. The interior minister Judit Varga said before the meeting in Brussels she expected EU members to avoid double standards and to prove that “this procedure is not a political witch-hunt.”Varga also wrote on Twitter that Hungary was being “put on pillory for rejecting mass immigration” Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman of Orban's cabinet, told the Hungarian radio that pro-migration forces in the EU governments wanted to take revenge on Hungary.

However, Tytti Tuppurainen, the Finnish Minister for EU Affairs and representing the Finnish EU Presidency, said after the first hearing the ministers were keeping their options under Article 7 sanctions alive.

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