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Letter to European Commission protests Hungary's new NGO law

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans speaks during an interview with Reuters at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 26 June 2017
European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans speaks during an interview with Reuters at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 26 June 2017

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

This letter was originally published on tasz.hu on 11 July 2017.

Following is the letter of the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, co-signed by us and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, to European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans urging the EC to act to protect NGOs and the rule of law in Hungary.

Dear First Vice-President Timmermans,

As you are aware, on 13th June 2017, the Hungarian parliament adopted the Law on the Transparency of Organisations Supported from Abroad. The law is part of a series of measures that began in 2013 designed to discredit and silence civil society organisations that are trying to hold the government to account to its obligations concerning anti-corruption, environmental protection, fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law.[1] Other measures include unfounded allegations by members of the Hungarian government, misleading reporting from government-friendly media, the terms of the 'Let's Stop Brussels' so-called consultation, as well as unjustified investigations. If you would like to form an impression of the tone of government smears, we would point you to a recent speech of Prime Minister Orbán where he accused NGOs of forming a 'collective mafia' together with people smugglers.[2]

Concern over the draft law, Bill T/14967, was expressed by a number of figures and institutions responsible for safeguarding democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, including by you.[3] There were several calls on the Hungarian government to substantially amend or withdraw the bill entirely.[4]

We are of the opinion that the law as adopted remains substantially the same as the original bill, with the government making only cosmetic changes. In its final form, the law continues to conflict with various rules of EU law, including Directive 2015/849 on anti-money laundering and terrorist financing, Article 63 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Directive 88/361 concerning free movement of capital, as well as various provisions of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The law as adopted fails to incorporate the recommendations contained in the preliminary opinion of the Venice Commission, released before the adoption of the law.[5] Following the law's adoption, the Venice Commission's final opinion stated that the 'Law will cause a disproportionate and unnecessary interference with the freedoms of association and expression, the right to privacy, and the prohibition of discrimination'.[6]

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Liberties reaffirm that this law is unnecessary and should be repealed. Existing legislation already guaranteed the financial transparency of civil society organisations.

Civil society organisations form an essential part of the national infrastructure required to protect and promote the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy, as repeatedly stated by the EU's institutions.[7] The implementation of the EU's fundamental values relies on the existence of adequately resourced civil society organisations free to carry out their activities without undue interference. It is in recognition of this fact that the EU provides technical, financial and political support for civil society to flourish in third countries, including during the process of accession to the EU.

We call on you to issue a statement of support for independent civil society organisations working in Hungary to promote the fundamental values of the EU. We also call on you to establish a focal point in the European Commission reporting directly to you, whom civil society organisations can contact to report harassment and undue restrictions on their work.

We call on the European Commission to proceed as expeditiously as possible to open infringement proceedings against the government of Hungary with respect to the law. However, the European Commission should recognise that infringement procedures alone are an inadequate tool to contain a concerted and holistic strategy designed to dismantle the infrastructure that supports democratic standards, protection of fundamental rights and the rule of law. Even when infringement procedures lead to a favourable judgment from the Court of Justice, the decision can be implemented in such a way as to deprive it of its practical impact, as is well illustrated by Commission v Hungary.[8]

Accordingly, we call on the European Commission to activate its framework on the rule of law with regard to Hungary. After seven years of measures designed to erode the balance of powers and pull authority towards the executive, the infrastructure responsible for maintaining the rule of law in Hungary is unable to protect fundamental rights or maintain democratic standards. By activating the rule of law framework, the Commission will be able to draw up more holistic recommendations to the government of Hungary, based on a formal dialogue, over how to bring the state back into line with the EU's fundamental values. This can serve as an authoritative point of departure for further discussion of the situation among the Member States in the Council.

We also call on the European Commission to work with the European Parliament and the Council to take measures to support civil society organisations that promote the implementation of EU law and the fundamental values of the EU. While the example of Hungary may be the most extreme, civil society organisations are also facing restrictions on their activities, funding cuts and attacks on their reputation in other Member States. The Union should therefore take measures to support civil society organisations. Such measures should include the creation of a fund to support civil society organisations inside the EU that promote the fundamental values of the EU. Such a fund should provide operational grants, support litigation and watchdog activities and capacity building activities.

Yours sincerely,

Balazs Denes
Executive Director
Civil Liberties Union for Europe

also on behalf of:

Stefánia Kapronczay
Executive Director
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

Márta Pardavi
Co-Chair
Hungarian Helsinki Committee



[1] Hungarian Helsinki Committee et al., 'Timeline of governmental attacks against Hungarian civil society organisations', 7 April 2017.

[2] Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's speech at the closing event for the National Consultation, delivered 27 June 2017, Budapest, available via the website of the Hungarian government, http://www.kormany.hu/.

[3] Opening remarks of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans in the European Parliament debate on Hungary, 26 April 2017.

[4] European Parliament Resolution of 17 May 2017 on the situation in Hungary; Resolution 2162 (2017) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 27 April 2017; European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 'FRA expresses concern over threats to civil society and freedom of education in the EU', 10 April 2017; Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, 'Human Rights Comment: The shrinking space for human rights organisations', 4 April 2017.

[5] Venice Commission, 'Hungary - Preliminary Opinion on the draft law on the transparency of organisations receiving support from abroad', CDL-PI(2017)002-e, 2 June 2017.

[6] Venice Commission, 'Hungary - Opinion on the draft Law on the transparency of organisations receiving support from abroad', CDL-AD(2017)015-e, 20 June 2017, para. 64.

[7] Council Conclusions on EU engagement with civil society in external relations, 10279/17, 19 June 2017; Council Conclusions on the roots of democracy and sustainable development: Europe's engagement with civil society in external relations, 14535/12, 15 October 2012; Commission Communication, 'The roots of democracy and sustainable development: Europe's engagement with civil society in external relations', COM(2012) 492, 12 September 2012.

[8] Case C-286/12 Commission v Hungary, EU:C:2012:687, 6 November 2012. Less than one fifth of the forcibly retired judges were reinstated, and even then not necessarily into their previously leading positions. For discussion see: Halmai, G., 'The early retirement age of the Hungarian Judges', in Fernanda, N. & Davis, B., (eds)., 'EU Law stories: Contextual and critical histories of European jurisprudence', 2017, chapter 24.

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