Opening Remarks

I want to start by thanking the Rapporteur, Ms Sargentini, for her engagement in preparing this Report.

The Report covers a wide range of measures in different areas taken by the Hungarian authorities over the last years which give rise to serious concerns from the perspective of our common EU values.

In this context, let me stress that democracy in our Member States, in our European Union, cannot exist without the rule of law and the respect of fundamental rights. They go together. These values characterise a society in which individual freedom, pluralism, non-discrimination and tolerance prevail.

Sadly, the Commission shares the concerns expressed in the Report, in particular as regards fundamental rights, corruption, the treatment of Roma and the independence of the judiciary.

As regards fundamental rights, the Report highlights important issues relating to civil society, academic freedom and media pluralism which are crucial for the good functioning of democracy.

Civil society is the very fabric of democratic societies and is threatened by measures taken by the Hungarian authorities that lead to a “shrinking space” of civil society organisations.

As a consequence, the Commission seized the Court of Justice about the Hungarian law on foreign-funded NGOs and launched an infringement procedure on the Hungarian legislation criminalising the assistance for asylum seekers.

Moreover, the Commission is analysing the compatibility with EU law of the recent law on the special tax on education, trainings and media campaign activities in the area of migration.

The Commission has also seized the Court of Justice about the Hungarian Higher Education Law for non-compliance with EU law, including academic freedom.

As regards the treatment of asylum seekers, the Commission has seized the Court of Justice for non-compliance with EU law of the Hungarian asylum and return legislation. Let me also stress that EU legislation provides that Member States have to ensure that the basic needs of persons in transit zones are covered and that they are treated in a humane and dignified manner. This includes providing food to asylum seekers staying in border zones. I would say that this is the humane – or should I say Christian – way to do things.

The Commission applies zero tolerance for fraud against the EU budget, and carries out regular audits to assess the functioning of the national management and control system based on a regularly updated risk management. If deficiencies are identified, adequate corrective actions are carried out.

The Hungarian operational programmes for EU structural and investment funds have been the subject of the highest amount of financial corrections in 2016 and 2017 among all EU Member States, as a result of the supervisory role of the Commission.

Moreover, the European Anti-Fraud Office has opened investigations where there was sufficient suspicion of fraud or other irregularities.

On 13 July 2018, on the proposal of the Commission, the Council addressed to Hungary country-specific recommendations to reinforce the anti-corruption framework, to strengthen prosecutorial efforts and to improve transparency and competition in public procurement.

These recommendations are based on the 2018 European Semester Country Report for Hungary where the Commission identified challenges related to the effectiveness of the national anti-corruption framework in preventing corruption and curbing favouritism in the public administration, related to the transparency and access to information regime and as regards the prioritisation of fighting high-level corruption via effective investigations and prosecutions.

The Commission will monitor and assess any measures of the Hungarian authorities to address these recommendations.

The Commission has launched infringement proceedings against Hungary in May 2016 for discrimination of Roma children on grounds of their ethnic origin in the field of education. Hungary entered into a constructive dialogue with the Commission and has adopted subsequently legislative amendments to prevent segregation and to de-segregate.

Challenges concerning the functioning and independence of the justice system in Hungary also require close monitoring. In particular, as raised in the 2018 European Semester Country Report, more could be done to better balance the powers between the President of the National Office for the Judiciary and the National Judicial Council.

The Commission is also the guardian of the Treaties, I say to the Parliament. When it comes to the application of EU law and the respect of the EU fundamental values, the Commission intervenes based on accurate and thorough legal analysis, it focuses on concrete national measures, and it engages in a dialogue with the authorities.

The Commission is using all the instruments at its disposal to address concerns in the manner the Commission considers most effective.

Let me recall, it was the Commission which invoked the Article 7 procedure as regards the clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law by Poland on 20 December 2017. This was an unprecedented step in the history of our European Union.

Unlike the European Parliament, the Commission has the right under the EU treaty to launch infringement procedures and in the case of Hungary has launched many value-related infringement proceedings. It is also using other instruments, including audits and investigations relating to the use of EU funds and actions through the European Semester, the EU annual cycle of economic policy coordination. 

The Commission rests committed to uphold the fundamental values of the Union and will continue to closely monitor the situation in Hungary in this regard. The Commission will not hesitate to take further action if necessary.

My promise to you is that we will be relentless.

Thank you very much.

Closing Remarks

After having listened to the debate I think there are a few things we have to clarify.

First of all, the Commission operates on the basis of the Treaty. The Treaty was signed by sovereign nations, was voted in sovereign nations, and if you are a member of a club and you sign a Treaty and you want to be a member of the club then you apply the rules. And you cannot use the argument of democracy to ignore the rules.

If you have a democratic majority then you can change the rules, you can negotiate a change of the Treaty, but you cannot violate the rules, and nor can you ignore the rules.

Everything I have put in my report at the beginning of this debate, all the concrete issues I have put before you, are based in fact, are issues we have with the Hungarian government, on the basis of rules that are not being respected.

And we will pursue this in a dialogue with the Hungarian Government and we will take the Hungarian Government to court if they violate the rules that were agreed at the European level.

That is the task of the Commission. And whether I was elected in this positon is neither here nor there. What we do is we respect the Treaties. And this role was given to the Commission in the Treaties. And the Treaties are the fundament on which we operate.

I just want to add one issue to that.

When we criticise the Hungarian Government and its legislative measures we do this very precisely. And I have to say, to then say that criticising the laws or criticising the Government would amount to  criticising a nation or a people - frankly speaking Mr Orban - that's the coward's way out.

If you make these laws, and if you stand for these laws, then stand for them. And we will have a debate, a dialogue, and hopefully we will resolve them. But don't try to deflect the attention from criticisms on the actions of your Government by saying that those who criticise your Government attack your nation or your people. That is the coward's way out.

One final remark…

[addresses interruption: The emptiness of the arguments on this side (of the room) needs to be compensated by screaming and shouting. Volume will not compensate for the emptiness of your arguments, sir]

One final remark: the Commission believes that the only European way is through dialogue.

If the dialogue doesn't deliver the results we will go to court. And I hope that Hungary will stick to its line to execute court rulings.

That is the rule of law in Europe. And Europe was created on the basis of rights of individuals. We have had a past sometimes of dictatorship through democracy. That is why we can never ignore the rule of law nor fundamental rights. And using the argument of democracy against the law and fundamental rights is going back to a European history none of us want to see again.

Thank you very much, Mr President