EU turns up infringement pressure on Hungary’s NGO, higher education laws

EU turns up infringement pressure on Hungary’s NGO, higher education laws
The higher education law is widely perceived as specifically targeting the academic freedom and even continued existence of George Soros’ Central European University in Budapest.
By bne IntelliNews July 14, 2017

The European Commission on July 13 stepped up pressure on Hungary over its NGO bill and higher education law. It has launched an infringement procedure against the government over the former and issued a reasoned opinion - the second phase of the infringement procedure - concerning the latter.

The government made cosmetic changes to the controversial bill targeted at foreign-funded NGOs after the Venice Commission said it imposed excessive obligations. Brussels waited for the opinion of the EU advisory body on constitutional law before launching the infringement procedure. 

The European Commission said the law “interferes unduly with fundamental rights, in particular the right to freedom of association and it introduces unjustified and disproportionate restrictions to the free movement of capital”. The law “does not strike a fair balance between transparency interests and the right of donors and beneficiaries to protect their personal data”, it added. The Hungarian regulation could prevent NGOs from raising funds and would restrict their ability to carry out their work, the Commission also stated.

The legislation requires NGOs to publicly declare funding sources and register with the government or face the prospect of dissolution. The amended legislation also keeps the discriminatory “foreign-funded organisation” label on NGOs receiving money from abroad.

Several NGOs, including Amnesty International (AI), the Helsinki Committee and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union have said they will boycott the new mandatory reporting rules. They said NGOs are already complying with the transparency requirements as the donations are listed on their homepages.

The controversial legislation, which many see as reminiscent of Russian’s “foreign agents” law, reflects the conflict between Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros. His ideal of an “open society” is at odds with Orban’s desire to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state”. The government sees NGOs as “foreign agents” working against Hungarian interests, especially those who support the rights of asylum-seekers, AI said.

The Commission's “reasoned opinion” with respect to the higher education law amendments and compatibility with EU law is partly important because the legislation is widely perceived as specifically targeting the Central European University, founded by Soros, who also funds various liberal NGOs in Hungary. Brussels said the legislation “runs counter to the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business". 

In both cases being dealt with under an infringement procedure, Hungary now has one more month to notify the Commission of measures being undertaken to remedy the situation. Otherwise, the Commission may decide to refer one or both case to the Court of Justice of the EU.