Budapest warns against EU divisions in time of war

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With war raging in Europe, the European Union should avoid divisive issues, Hungary’s justice minister said Tuesday, as the bloc considers stripping her government of funding over poor democratic standards.

Pointing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Judit Varga stressed the need to “show solidarity and unity and strength from European partners.”

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The bloc should “focus on those topics which unite us instead of those topics which (drive) wedges between us,” she told reporters as she arrived for an EU meeting in Luxembourg.

Her comments came after the EU executive commission announced last week it would soon launch a never-used procedure against Budapest that could see the Hungarian government stripped of EU funding for flouting democratic standards.

The latest report from the European Commission raised serious concerns about the rule of law in Hungary, seen especially in a deterioration of media diversity, and also charged Budapest was falling short on battling corruption.

Varga however highlighted that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had been re-elected earlier this month with an overwhelming majority, insisting, “Our voters ... do not share these concerns.”

Orban, a nationalist and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is frequently accused in Brussels of backsliding on democratic norms.

Those concerns were again in focus on Tuesday when European affairs ministers from across the bloc gathered to discuss respect for the rule of law in Hungary and four other member states as part of a regular review.

EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders told reporters the war raging in nearby Ukraine underlined the need to “be very attentive to the rule of law and the rules-based system inside the European Union.”

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen announced on April 5 that the commission would launch a procedure that could see Budapest lose EU cash if the move is endorsed by a super-majority of at least 15 of the 27 member states.

The official letter informing the Hungarian government that the procedure has begun is expected to go out towards the end of April, once it has been greenlighted by European Commissioners, a European source said.

Asked to comment on the process, Varga said, “We have to see the letter first ... and carefully analyze it.”

The conditionality mechanism was created in 2020, after a summit at the height of the coronavirus pandemic that agreed common borrowing to build an 800-billion-euro ($900 billion) pile of grants and loans to help EU economies recover.

The mechanism has so far never been used. Once set in motion, the procedure is expected to take between six and nine months to implement.

The issue of corruption is also the reason for the commission’s blocking of the Hungarian recovery plan, worth 7.2 billion euros in European subsidies.

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