The European Commission on Wednesday launched a process to formally censure Hungary over a new law that critics say is meant to silence government opposition.
Budapest’s “Defense of Sovereignty” measure, adopted late last year, creates a new authority with powers to investigate political activities carried out on behalf of, or funded by, a foreign interest. In some circumstances, people using foreign money to influence elections could face jail time. The government says the law is meant to protect the will of voters from undue foreign interference.
Media freedom and human rights organizations, however, have compared the measure to Russia’s foreign agents law, which Moscow has used to silence critics who receive funding from outside the country. The Council of Europe called for the Hungarian law to be abandoned, saying it could be weaponized against political opposition.
On Wednesday, the Commission started an infringement procedure after determining that the Hungarian law violates “several fundamental rights” enshrined in EU law, including privacy and the freedom of expression and association.
Budapest now has two months to reply and address the Commission’s concerns, or else the Commission can escalate to the next stage of the process, a so-called reasoned opinion formally calling on the government to comply with EU law.
Hungary’s permanent representation to the EU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The infringement process for the “Defense of Sovereignty” law is just the latest round of tug-of-war between Brussels and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán over rule-of-law issues. It’s not even the first time they’ve tangled over foreign-backed speech: In 2020, the EU’s top court struck down a 2017 law that would have required some NGOs with outside financing to register as foreign-funded organizations.
More recently, the Commission and civil society groups have tangled over how to balance protecting free speech amid democratic backsliding in places like Hungary, while also blocking malign foreign interference from the likes of China and Russia.
Last year, the Commission proposed requiring all foreign-funded interest representatives to enter details in national registries, arguing that this would block the likes of Orbán from imposing even more stringent measures. Yet human rights groups, including Transparency International EU and the European Partnership for Democracy, say this will only rubber-stamp Orbán’s efforts.
Nicolas Camut contributed reporting.