21 February 2024

Autocratic (Il)legalism

It is a common myth that since the Fidesz-KDNP coalition has almost always had a two-thirds parliamentary majority since 2010, the Orbán-government could pass its illiberal legislative reforms in a legally correct manner. In reality, however, many laws that constitute the pillars of Orbán’s illiberal regime were enacted in violation of the procedural requirements of the rule of law. The European Commission’s country visit to Hungary provides an opportunity to remind the EU bodies of their responsibility to enforce all requirements of the rule of law without compromise.

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26 January 2024

Too Little, Too Late

All signs indicate that the various procedures and instruments invented and used by the European Commission to improve the situation of the rule of law in Hungary have so far not been successful. In fact, apart from a few sham measures, democracy and rule of law, in their simplest definitions (the possibility to overthrow the incumbent government through free and fair elections, and the limitation of political power by law) are in a worse situation in Hungary today than when the various mechanisms for protecting the rule of law were launched or payments were suspended. Why have the tools used by the European Union so far proven ineffective? Finding the causes of a complex phenomenon is never easy, but the experience of recent years makes it possible to identify some that can explain this failure.

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13 January 2024

Ein Blockierer als Vorsitzender

Ungarn übernimmt am 1. Juli 2024 den Vorsitz im Rat der EU. Das stößt auf Widerstand, denn zentrale Teile von Ungarns Verfassungspolitik stehen mit rechtsstaatlichen Grundsätzen nicht im Einklang. Das Land gilt in Europa als Außenseiter und Quertreiber, es betreibt eine Blockadepolitik. Zuletzt hat Ungarns Ministerpräsident auf dem Dezember-Gipfel des Europäischen Rates erneut seine Fähigkeiten als Veto-Spezialist unter Beweis gestellt. Und solch ein Land soll den Ratsvorsitz übernehmen? Rechtlich lässt sich das kaum verhindern, denn der Vorsitz ist gemäß dem Primärrecht festgelegt und kann Ungarn ohne Rechtsverstöße nicht entzogen werden. Politisch wäre ein Entzug unklug, weil Ungarn ihn zum Anlass nähme, weniger kompromissbereit zu sein.

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21 December 2023

Same, Same but Different?

The Commission’s decision to release a significant amount of EU money is a testament to some serious pitfalls in the mechanism, which governs the unblocking of frozen EU funds. To recall, Hungary’s endowments are blocked via two different channels, based on two different conditionality criteria, which have some overlapping points. Both prescribe reforms to preserve the independence of the judiciary, which according to the Commission’s justification has been successfully accomplished by Hungary.  The Commission has, however, never published a detailed plan that would attach a specific amount to be released to every sufficiently satisfied conditionality criterion. In this blog post, I showcase that the overlap between the two conditionality mechanisms and the absence of a robust ex-ante blueprint for releasing frozen funds make the unblocking process highly obscure. This lack of transparency both decreases the efficiency and robustness of conditionality, and increases the tendency for inter-institutional conflicts.

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20 December 2023

Militant Rule of Law

To protect the rule of law based legal system against abusive use of the loopholes, imperfections, contradictions of the law, to avoid legal inertia legal positivist arguments are needed to convince and mobilize the legal mind. The same applies when the blind fortune of democracy provides the opportunity to erase the legally enthroned injustice and domination of illiberal regimes. When it comes to legal enactments that serve legal cheating the rule of law must respond to systemic abuse of the law, and that requires and justifies a rule of law based exceptionalism and a systemic remedy.

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17 December 2023

The EU’s Faustian Bargain

Twelve years into the EU’s rule of law crisis, this week has demonstrated that EU leaders are still unwilling to confront their own complicity in Orbán’s rise and to do something about it. Is this sad spectacle a price worth paying in exchange for a symbolic gesture of goodwill to Ukraine? That is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is this: if the EU continues to treat the rule of law as a bargaining chip and to make promises it won’t keep, for how much longer will our Union remain a club worth joining?

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15 December 2023

Orbán’s Veto Play – The Subsidiarity Card

Viktor Orbán is known to use veto threats in the European Council to get his way. This time, he was keen to see that after months of tense exchanges with the Commission, Hungary gets access to EU funds that had been blocked in order to achieve compliance with the rule of law and fundamental rights conditionality. So, PM Orbán saw it fit to loudly contest Ukraine’s accession and the financial aid package of 50 billion Euros. This may be PM Orbán’s strongest veto play to date.

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13 December 2023

Taking Revenge for Dissent

Hungary’s latest judicial reform in May 2023 came in response to  EU decisions to suspend the country’s access to funds due to serious rule of law concerns. The reform aimed, among other things, to strengthen the independence of the Kúria, the Supreme Court of Hungary. Experience to date shows that while on the level of formal legal rules, some improvements towards the rule of law have been made, in actual daily practice, the opposite is happening: While steps have been taken to restore the independence of the Kúria, the Chief Justice is working on further eroding the independence of individual judges.

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12 December 2023
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Trick and Treat?

Almost a year has passed since the European Union decided to block the payment of EUR 27 billion in union funds to Hungary under several instruments. Access to the largest part of the frozen funds - altogether EUR 13 billion - depends on whether Hungary complies with its undertakings to strengthen judicial independence. The government claims to have met all four of the so-called super milestones by adopting a judicial package in May 2023 and requests access to the blocked funds under Hungary’s Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF) and ten different operative programmes. However, upon taking a closer look at the preconditions to the payments and the nature and implementation of the proposed reforms, it becomes clear that Hungary is still playing tricks to avoid compliance.

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07 December 2023

Protecting the Fairness of European Parliament Elections via Preliminary Ruling

Supreme or constitutional courts regularly step in to protect the democratic process by deciding election disputes. It is remarkable that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has so far barely been engaged concerning the European Parliament (EP) elections. Using Hungary as an example, I will argue in the following that the CJEU is institutionally well-positioned to help protect the integrity of the 2024 EP elections via preliminary ruling procedures. Hungarian democracy has been in decline, according to the EP, the Commission and various democracy indices. The problems include the lack of a level playing field, targeted action by authorities against opposition parties, overlaps between the activities of the government and the governing party, state funding of campaigning and party financing in general, lack of media pluralism, and the different means of voting for citizens living abroad (postal vote for some and not for others). I argue that the CJEU could and should be engaged to protect the fairness of the EP elections in Hungary.

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03 November 2023

The Right To Die Like The Trees: Standing

My name is dr. Dániel András Karsai. I am a human rights attorney. I am also terminally ill. In August 2022, I was diagnosed with ALS. ALS is a so-called motor neurone disease. ALS leads to an extremely humiliating life situation, increasingly depriving you of independence. For reasons unknown to medical science, this disease causes nerve cells that move the muscles to deteriorate, leading to muscle atrophy and ultimately complete paralysis. At the end of the disease, respiratory functions also cease, resulting in death by asphyxiation. The final stage of the disease is virtually a vegetative existence, without any possibility of conscious activity or communication. For me, this form of existence is devoid of all meaning and dignity. In this situation, I firmly believe in the arguable claim to demand the right to end my life with dignity instead of enduring meaningless suffering.

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10 July 2023
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Restoring the Rule of Law By Breaching It

The judicial reform recently passed by the Hungarian Parliament ostensibly seeks to restore the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Hungary. Crucially, it is also a vital step for the government to gain access to the 27 billion in frozen EU funds. While some might think that the EU’s strategy has been successful, a closer look shows that while the reform has the potential of improving judicial independence, the procedure leading to its adoption shows that there is no real commitment to restore the rule of law. In particular, throughout the law-making process the government consistently flouted the principle of legality, including the requirement of transparent, accountable, democratic and pluralistic law-making.

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23 June 2023

Can the Hungarian Council Presidency be Postponed – Legally?

By now, it is commonly agreed that Hungary is no longer a democracy. I will offer in this blogpost some legal underpinnings to the argument that occupying the Council presidency must rotate only among those states that are in compliance with Article 2 TEU values including the rule of law, those that are fully fledged representative democracies in line with Article 10 TEU, that have been in line with Article 49 TEU at the time of accession and never regressed.

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07 June 2023

An Inconvenient Constraint

On 1 July 2024, Hungary is set to take over the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. The European Parliament and the Meijers Committee issued reports questioning whether Hungary should be blocked from doing that. These proposals raise questions of political feasibility, however, especially as one may doubt if a Hungarian Council Presidency can do much practical damage to the EU. In addition, they also raise questions of legal feasibility. A logical prerequisite for preventing Hungary from holding the Presidency as long as it breaches the rule of law is that doing so is consistent with the EU’s own rule of law. I doubt it is.

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03 June 2023

Institutional Corsets and the Question of Timing

There has been a lot of noise around whether Hungary should, and legally could, be blocked from taking over the Council presidency in the second half of 2024, considering the state of the rule of law in the country. On 1 June, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, questioning Hungary’s ability to “credibly fulfill” the tasks of a Council presidency and asking the Council to “find a proper solution as soon as possible”, else Parliament could take “appropriate measures”. Such concerns are legitimate, but another question seems to be sidelined in the debate: How much practical damage can the upcoming Council presidency under Hungary actually do in the EU?

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10 May 2023
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Betrayal

Various EU bodies have started to appreciate the threat the anti-constitutional challenge poses to fundamental rights and the entire EU. The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), the body primarily tasked with watching over fundamental rights, chose a different path and committed to collaboration and to legitimizing an illiberal regime. As earlier contributors to FRA reports on Hungary, we felt the responsibility to call attention to this unfortunate development: The FRA recently committed to rely on reporting from two governmental-controlled institutions, the National University of Public Service and the Hungarian ombudsperson.

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04 April 2023
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Frozen

After years of inaction, the European Commission and Council jointly acted to freeze EU funds totaling more than €28.7 billion for Hungary and more than €110 billion for Poland at the end of 2022, citing rule-of-law violations. Surprisingly, the decisions were taken not just (or even primarily) using the new Conditionality Regulation designed for that purpose. Instead, they used a variety of other legal tools to which rule-of-law conditionality was attached. It remains somewhat mysterious, however, precisely which funds and what proportion of those funds have been suspended, and how those suspensions have been legally justified. This post, a shorter version of a SIEPS paper that will be published soon, describes what we know about the complex set of funding suspensions intended to make EU Member States pay for their rule-of-law violations.

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28 March 2023