BUDAPEST — Hungary is duping the EU, anti-corruption campaigners warned this week as Brussels edges closer to doling out billions in exchange for a slate of Viktor Orbán’s promised reforms.
For over a decade, concerns have been growing across Europe that Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, is centralizing power, hollowing out independent institutions and channeling public funds to family and friends.
Officials seeking to stem the tide of democratic backsliding in Hungary have sought to use the power of EU money to pressure Orbán’s government to change its behavior. In September, the European Commission recommended the suspension of €7.5 billion in EU funds. Similarly, the EU has been holding back Hungary’s access to coronavirus recovery funds, hoping to extract a number of reforms from Budapest.
Now, a deal appears near.
Facing significant economic pressures at home, Orbán recently agreed to implement a set of 17 reforms, negotiated with the Commission, in return for access to European funds. The offer could pave the way for the Council of the EU to drop the proposed funding cut and allow Budapest access to its regular EU budget funds. An agreement also seems in the works to unlock Hungary’s post-pandemic cash.
In Budapest, however, experts and activists say the new reforms are insufficient and will do little to address the problem of pervasive high-level corruption and democratic backsliding.
At the center of Hungary’s reform package is a new “Integrity Authority” to protect EU funds. The body will have the power to suspend public contract bids for two months while concerns are raised and to go to court to complain that other institutions have failed to act — but it doesn’t have the competence to tackle corruption directly.
“This is a very weak solution, compared to what could have been,” said Sándor Léderer, director of K-Monitor, an anti-corruption watchdog group.
Civil society groups remain skeptical of Budapest’s offer — and say they are disappointed with the Commission’s lack of consultation with those on the ground. In their view, Brussels is giving up on a rare opportunity for change.
“In a system where corruption is so deeply linked to its functioning,” Léderer said, “it’s very hard to imagine that at this political level anyone would take the fight against corruption seriously.”
“We had serious doubts about what can come out of this,” he said, adding that at the same time “there was never such pressure on the Hungarian government to take action against corruption, and there was never such intensive legislative activity or institution-building on this issue.”
Detailing their fears
Beyond the promised Integrity Authority, other elements of the reform package include new conflict of interest rules, a commitment to reduce single-bid contracts and more transparency measures.
Civil society groups, however, have pointed to shortcomings and loopholes in all of the government’s new reforms, as well as possible practical difficulties in implementing them.
“While in some of the above areas it is possible to identify steps in the direction suggested by the European Union, the Government, when formulating remedial measures, was careful not to introduce changes that would shake the institutional and procedural [fundamentals] of the captured, illiberal state,” a group of Hungarian civil society groups said in a joint analysis last month.
Some organizations are also frustrated that the Commission failed to push for better safeguards to preserve the independence of democratic institutions, such as the Competition Authority and State Audit Office. And they lamented that it didn’t demand reforms enforcing more concrete consequences for corrupt acts.
“No anti-corruption framework can be effective without an independent judiciary,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog.
The Commission and the Hungarian authorities are also in the process of discussing a possible set of judicial reforms, but experts remain skeptical.
Hungarian officials have publicly insisted that their reform package will result in tangible results. EU officials have also noted that Hungary is expected to be given reform “milestones” it must complete before it can receive any recovery funds.
Asked about civil society groups’ concerns, the Commission said in an emailed statement that it “does not comment on the individual measures adopted by the Hungarian authorities in the context of the Rule of Law conditionality regime” — the EU’s formal name for the tool that allows it to withhold budget funds over democratic erosion concerns.
The Commission noted it would assess the offer “collectively after 19 November,” the deadline Brussels and Budapest set for Hungary to report back on the implementation of its reforms.
The Hungarian government did not respond to questions from POLITICO.
“Even if the 17 half-hearted promises will be supplemented by additional measures to restore certain safeguards of independence in the judicial system,” Pardavi said, “harms cannot be undone overnight by exactly those who had brought them upon the country.”