Hungary joins Poland in vetoing €1.8 trillion EU budget and coronavirus relief package

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Hungary and Poland blocked adoption of the European Union's 2021-2027 budget and coronavirus recovery package on Monday over a new mechanism linking access to EU funds with rule of law criteria.

They were the only countries in the 27-member bloc to do so. 

The veto by the two countries draws the fate of the €1.1 trillion budget and €750 billion recovery package into uncertainty as the economies of many European countries are hit by new lockdowns amid the worsening pandemic.

The rule of law conditionality, which would tie disbursal of EU funds to member states' adherence to democratic standards, was approved by EU ambassadors on Monday with a necessary qualified majority, but Hungary and Poland used their veto power to block an agreement on the framework of the economic recovery package, effectively stalling progress of the measures.

European heads of state and government will meet via videoconference on Thursday to resume discussions over the stalled budget, but a resolution of the stalemate is not expected by then.

Hungary and Poland were the two largest net beneficiaries of EU funds in 2018.

Hungarian officials have argued that the rule of law condition is an attempt by Brussels to force Hungary to change its controversial policies on immigration and blackmail the country into accepting dictates from the European Union. 

Prime Minister Viktor OrbánFotó: JOHANNA GERON/AFP

In a statement on Tuesday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wrote, "In Brussels today, they only view countries which let migrants in as those governed by the rule of law. Those who protect their borders cannot qualify as countries where rule of law prevails." 

But the EU's concerns over Hungary's adherence to the rule of law have focused primarily on media freedom, judicial independence and corruption, and migration has not been featured among the rule of law conditions articulated by the new mechanism. 

The stalemate will be difficult to break as the Hungarian government has indicated it will not budge on its position, and numerous EU leaders have also insisted the rule of law mechanism is not negotiable.

On Wednesday, Hungary's six largest opposition parties signed a joint statement condemning the Orbán government's veto of the budget, informing the nations and citizens of Europe that "Viktor Orbán and his government are not equivalent with Hungary as a country."

"We call on European Union institutions and the governments of member states to find a solution so that the selfishness of the Orbán government is not an obstacle to solving the European and Hungarian economic crisis, and so that Hungarian citizens and businesses who are worried for their security and existence may access the support the European Union intended for Hungary as soon as possible," the parties wrote.

Leaked recordings show public broadcaster manipulated news coverage

A recording obtained by the Budapest bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty revealed editors at state media company MTVA instructed reporters on what topics to cover and how to color stories to fit a desired narrative. 

One recording, taken just before European Parliament elections in 2019, features lead editor Balázs Bende instructing reporters on how to cover opposition parties and issues important in the election.

"European Parliament elections are coming at the end of May, and I'm sure no one will be surprised to hear me say that this institution does not support opposition cooperation," Bende said in the recording, referring to opposition parties coordinating their candidates against those of Fidesz. "Whoever is on shift must produce content according to the appropriate narrative, method, and direction...mostly about migrants and Brussels." 

MTVA lead editor Balázs BendeFotó: M1/Youtube

Bende told reporters that if they were unwilling to comply with the instructions, they could "go and submit their resignation papers to the boss and leave. No one is forcing you to work here."

MTVA news director Zsolt Németh also gave instructions on bringing pro-government commentators onto programs to "simplify things for the people" on how they should interpret particular issues.

RFE/RL also obtained internal MTVA emails where reporters were instructed to insinuate that Hungary was faring better than other countries with the coronavirus, and to take a critical stance on migration, LGBTQ issues, climate change and other issues.

"We were instructed not to use the word 'refugee' in any context," one unidentified reporter told the outlet. "Even among people who were officially granted refugee status, we talked about them as migrants."

MTVA journalists who spoke to RFE/RL described a "mafia-like" atmosphere of intimidation at the broadcaster. 

When asked during a session of Parliament about the political directives given at the publicly-funded broadcaster, state secretary Balázs Orbán said that diversity in the media prevails in Hungary, and that the government does not wish to interfere in the work of media organizations.

Death rate up significantly in October, especially among older Hungarians 

Hungary's total death rate was up significantly in mid-October, according to the Central Statistics Office, most likely a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Total deaths between October 19-25 exceeded the average of the previous five years by 403, a 17 percent rise. That number could rise further as data are finalized. 

For Hungarians aged 65-79, deaths increased by 28 percent compared to the last five-year average. 

According to data from the Coronavirus Emergency Task Force, there were 299 coronavirus-related deaths between October 19-25, or around 12 percent of total deaths based on averages from previous years. 

The margin of the death rate increase is likely to rise as new data becomes available: while 299 coronavirus deaths were registered during that week in October, weekly deaths have exceeded 600 in the past two weeks, which could represent as much as 25 percent of all deaths in Hungary.

In a recent study, the journal Cardiovascular Research found that one in four coronavirus deaths in Hungary can be traced to air pollution, exceeding the European average of 19 percent and the global average of 15 percent. Particulates in the air increase the chances of coronavirus infection, inflame air passages and weaken the immune system, the journal wrote. 

On Wednesday, 92 new deaths were reported by the coronavirus Emergency Task Force, bringing the total to 3,472. The number of Covid-19 patients being treated in hospitals rose to 7,532, and 580 patients were on ventilators. 

The 7-day average of daily deaths, and the number of hospitalized patients and patients on ventilators has stagnated in recent days, even as the rolling average of daily new cases rises steadily.

Most Hungarians unwilling to receive a coronavirus vaccination 

A survey by Euronews found that only 17 percent of Hungarians would accept a coronavirus vaccination if it were to become available, while 47 percent said they would not take a vaccination at all and 36 percent were still undecided. 

Respondents were most likely to consent to a vaccination if it were developed in Hungary, and slightly fewer would take a vaccine developed in the United States. Only 7 percent said they would receive a Russian vaccine (Hungary has already ordered preliminary shipments of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine) and 4 percent would take a Chinese vaccine.

The Russian vaccine Sputnik VFotó: Kirill Braga/Sputnik via AFP

The results are striking when compared to an October survey of 13,426 people in 19 countries by Nature Magazine, which found that only 15 percent of respondents would not take a vaccination if it were available.

Hungary will be the first country to receive preliminary samples of the Russian coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V, which is expected to be delivered on Thursday, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó said in a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday. 

Hungary will receive ten doses of the vaccine, which it will conduct clinical tests on in the coming weeks to decide whether it will purchase larger quantities, Szijjártó said. 

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