Government plans repeal of lex-CEU and NGO law after European court rulings

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The Hungarian government this week announced it would amend or repeal two earlier legislative changes that caused widespread controversy and resulted in European court rulings declaring them unlawful. 

Reports emerged Monday that a 2017 law on higher education, known as lex-CEU, would be modified after a ruling last year by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that found it violated European Union law. The law resulted in Central European University (CEU) - one of Hungary's premier higher education institutions - moving the majority of its operations to Vienna. The European Commission earlier launched an infringement proceeding against Hungary over the law. 

In a statement, CEU responded to the planned amendment, saying it "changes nothing for CEU."

"We believe the government has no intention of creating the conditions in which international institutions like CEU can operate freely in Hungary. Under the new draft legislation, it remains a political decision—certain to be taken at the highest level—whether to allow foreign universities to operate. The government has already made it perfectly clear how it proposes to use its powers."

The university wrote that it would remain in Austria, "a country where basic standards of academic freedom are respected," but that it would maintain its research presence in Budapest.

"We will not subject ourselves again to the political whims of one man and his regime," the university wrote. 

On Wednesday, another draft bill was submitted which would repeal Hungary's law governing the operation of NGOs that receive funding from foreign sources.   

That law, also passed in 2017, requires all NGOs receiving foreign support over a certain amount to register themselves with authorities as "foreign-funded organizations", to disclose their donors, and to indicate on all publications and websites that they receive foreign funding. The legislation sparked mass protests in Budapest that year, as did lex-CEU.

Illusztráció: Botos Tamás/444

However, a provision of the new draft bill would designate those NGOs with annual budgets of more than HUF 20 million (€55,000) as "civic organizations engaging in activities likely to influence public life," and require that Hungary's State Audit Office (ÁSZ) audit those organizations annually and publish a public report.On Wednesday, 19 civic organizations belonging to the Civilization Coalition released a statement saying the retraction of the NGO law was an "important step," but that designating them "civic organizations engaging in activities likely to influence public life" was misleading.   

"In a healthy democracy, the public discourse is formed by free and active citizens - we all have the right and responsibility to address the problems and issues affecting us," the organizations wrote. 

Also reacting to the draft bill, human rights organization Transparency International Hungary pointed out that the ÁSZ, which is chaired by a former Fidesz MP, ordinarily only regulates the management of public funds, but is now being directed to oversee thousands of NGOs that operate on private money.

"Without this new law, ÁSZ would have nothing to with the accounting and management of Transparency International Hungary, since we do not receive state support and state-owned companies do not donate a single penny to us," the organization wrote.

As we reported in June, the ECJ ruling on the NGO law found that it "introduced discriminatory, unjustified and unnecessary restrictions on foreign donations to civil society organizations, in breach of its obligations under...the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union." The court found that “the measures...are such as to create a climate of distrust with regard to those associations and foundations.” 

Critics of the "NGO law" argued that the rules stigmatize civil organizations, restrict free speech and the right to free association, restrict the free flow of capital and violate rights to privacy and data protection. In 2017, the European Commission launched an infringement proceeding against Hungary over the law after twice calling on the government to withdraw it.

Opposition plans primary, Fidesz mayor asks them to stand down 

Six opposition parties have concluded plans for how they will conduct a primary election process ahead of national elections in 2022, Debreciner reported on Friday. 

According to the information, which has since been confirmed by members of the opposition: 

  • Candidates must register by July 26 and indicate which caucus they intend to join
  • Candidates may collect forms for signature gathering in support of their candidacy after August 23 
  • Those forms must be submitted with the required number of signatures by September 6 
  • The first round of the primary will be held in all of Hungary's 106 voting districts between September 18 and 26. The opposition nominee that receives the most votes in a given district will be run as the joint opposition candidate in national elections in spring 2022. Primary voters will also be able to vote for an opposition candidate for prime minister. If no prime ministerial nominee receives an absolute majority plus one vote in the first round, a second round will be held between October 4 and 10.   

The six parties have set up a National Primary Committee, which will coordinate the primary process. Committee delegates are: László Sebián-Petrovszki (Democratic Coalition), Gábor Szabó (Jobbik), Gábor Hanák (LMP), Zsolt Molnár (MSZP), Miklós Hajnal (Momentum) and Olivio Kocsis-Cake (Dialogue.) 

Days after the announcement of the primary process, Fidesz mayor of Kecskemét, Klaudia Szemerey Pataki, asked the opposition parties to refrain from holding primaries in the city.

Kecskemét mayor Klaudia Szemerey PatakiFotó: Ujvári Sándor/MTI/MTVA

"Kecskemét shouldn't be a battlefield!" she wrote on Wednesday. "In our current critical situation, our city does not need a primary campaign, but calm and responsible politicking." 

Hungary drops further in press freedom report

An annual report released Tuesday by international journalism organization Reporters Without Borders saw Hungary drop two positions in press freedom rankings to 92nd in the world, one place above neighboring Serbia. 

The report said that the Hungarian government had used the coronavirus pandemic as a "handy pretext" for "extend[ing] its hegemony over the Hungarian media landscape." Hungary's state of emergency gave the government "almost unlimited powers to handle the crisis [and] threatened journalists with prosecution on charges of disseminating fake news," the report continued. 

"This would-be information police state at the heart of Europe forced many journalists and their sources to censor themselves, although articles critical of the government and revealing reports were often still published," the report reads. It also points to major disruptions at liberal commercial broadcaster Klubrádió and critical online news outlet as examples of a further decline in media freedom.  

Hungary has dropped 36 places in the yearly rankings since 2013, and is now behind other countries in region like Albania, Moldova and North Macedonia. 

State of emergency could be extended until autumn 

A draft bill was submitted Tuesday which would extend Hungary's Covid-19 pandemic state of emergency until the autumn.

According to the bill, the state of emergency, which is currently set to expire on May 23, would be extended until the 15th day following the first autumn session of the national assembly. The government may end the state of emergency before that date if deemed necessary, it continues. 

"New [virus] variants are spreading across Europe and are present in Hungary as well, which is why increased protection is essential," the bill reads, adding that "quick and effective decision-making" is necessary to protect Hungarians' health and the economy. 

Hungary's state of emergency passed in March 2020 caused an international uproar as critics argued it allowed the government to "rule by decree." The extraordinary legislation allowed the government to implement resolutions without parliamentary approval which would remain in force until the end of the state of emergency. New laws included in the bill made it a criminal offence to inhibit the government's efforts to combat the coronavirus, and disseminating false or otherwise alarming information about the pandemic could be punishable by up to five years in prison.

Gulyás: terraces to open Saturday

Outdoor terraces at restaurants and bars will likely reopen beginning Saturday after 3.5 million people have received at least a first vaccine dose, the prime minister's chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said at a press briefing Thursday. 

Terraces will be permitted to remain open until 9:30 p.m., and the start of an overnight curfew will be extended one hour to 11 p.m., Gulyás said, adding that Hungary is likely to reach 4 million vaccinations next week and 4.5 million only days later. 

As of Thursday, 3,419,450 people had received at least a first dose of a vaccine, or nearly 35% of Hungary's population. This gives the country the second-highest vaccination rate in the European Union.

People wait for their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine developed by China's Sinopharm company, at a vaccination center of a seniors club in Budapest on February 25, 2021.Fotó: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

The Emergency Task Force announced this week that 600,000 doses of China's Sinopharm vaccine are set to arrive this weekend ahead of a ten-day vaccination campaign in which the government plans to inoculate all people 45 and older who are registered for vaccination.

On Thursday, Hungary reached 26,000 coronavirus-related deaths, surpassing Czechia for the most total deaths per capita of any country in the world.

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