Commission’s Orbán plan: Talk, threaten and seek allies
With disputes between Brussels and Budapest piling up, the European Commission plans a three-pronged response — composed of dialogue, threats and seeking support from other EU members.
Tension with Hungary has been growing on several fronts. Among the bones of contention are a new education bill that critics say is designed to close down the Central European University backed by U.S. financier George Soros, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s refusal to take in refugees, the detention of asylum-seekers, the distribution of a government survey entitled “Let’s stop Brussels!” and a campaign against foreign-funded NGOs.
But so far, Brussels has been unable to lay a glove on Orbán. EU diplomats say he is a master at playing cat and mouse with the Commission. This is in marked contrast to the other major troublemaker in town, the Polish government, which repeatedly attacks Brussels but ends up cornered, as it did last month when it fought a bitter battle to prevent Donald Tusk being reappointed as European Council president only to lose and end up isolated.
After commissioners discussed Hungary on Wednesday, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans suggested it was worth talking to Budapest about the path it wants to follow. He contrasted the “Let’s Stop Brussels!” initiative with Hungary’s signature last month of the Rome declaration, which aims to re-energize the EU following Britain’s decision to quit.
“There’s a necessity to have a political dialogue with Prime Minister Orbán … in what direction do you want to take the country?” Timmermans said. He noted Budapest was generally willing to talk: “There’s a difference with the Polish authorities who refuse to have a dialogue with us.”
Timmermans said the Commission would “review all these issues closely” when it next looks at potential infringements of EU rules later this month. So-called “infringement procedures” against EU member countries can lead to heavy fines.
“We have to be on a very firm legal ground before we start infringement procedures,” Timmermans said.
The Commission also intends to “quickly complete a thorough legal assessment” of whether the new education bill is compatible with EU rules on free movement and services.
The Hungarian government reacted to the Commission’s stance with some mixed messaging of its own. On the education bill, it said there was “no scope for the suspension of laws in Hungary” but it was “ready to talk.”
In Brussels, Timmermans signaled he wanted member countries to offer strong support for the Commission’s stance. “It’s clear that this is not only a matter for the Commission,” he said.
However, Timmermans made clear that none of the disputes with Hungary could lead to the ultimate sanction, which has never been used — the suspension of a member country’s voting rights.
His comments drew a withering response from Sophie in ’t Veld, vice president of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. “It is impressive that Mr. Timmermans can give a press conference in response to one of the boldest assaults on European values we face without really saying anything,” she said in a statement. “A condemnation would have been nice.”
Once again the Commission finds itself in the position of looking toothless when countries don’t follow the rules. Yet it has few tools at its disposal to change things. Some EU leaders, such as Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, have recently suggested that “countries that do not take their responsibility when it comes to migration policy should not be able to have access to support from the EU in the same way as is currently the case.” But there is no prospect of any imminent change on that front.
In the longer term, however, things are less certain. In June, the Commission is expected to publish a “reflection paper” on the future of EU finances and new rules for the EU budget after 2020 are expected to be presented before the end of the year. With the EU losing Britain’s sizable contribution to its coffers, wealthier member countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany may want to make it possible to cut EU funds to a country that rejects EU-wide migration policy or EU standards on the rule of law.