MEPs shocked by ‘aggressiveness’ during Hungarian Article 7 fact-finding trip

Originally planned for March 2020 but delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, LIBE Committee delegation finally visited Hungary last week
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By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

04 Oct 2021

The context for the trip is the ongoing Treaty Article 7 procedure concerning possible breaches of the EU’s founding values by Hungary. It was the first such mission since 2011.

The process now rests with the European Council but Parliament will have to confirm the decision at the end, and is still - by means of the findings of this delegation - delivering its input to it.

The delegation wanted to find out about the state of respect for press and academic freedom, judicial independence, the rights of minorities and the wider rule of law context.

The MEPs exchanged views with the country’s Justice and Interior ministers, Budapest’s Mayor and representatives of the political opposition.

They also met civil society organisations, journalists, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, representatives of academia and the arts, and had meetings with judges in the country’s Supreme and Constitutional courts.

Headed by Greens/EFA Vice-chair Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, the delegation included representatives of all seven political groups in the European Parliament: the EPP’s Isabel Wiseler-Lima, Social Democrat Bettina Vollath, Renew’s Anna Júlia Donáth from Hungary, the Left’s Malin Björk and, representing the ECR and the ID groups, VOX delegation chair Jorge Buxadé and ID vice-chair Nicolas Bay, respectively.

The latter two seemed to have had a different agenda from the rest of the delegation.

“[I was] particularly shocked by the aggressiveness with which we were greeted by some interlocutors. An open dialogue and an honest exchange was in parts, not possible” S&D Group MEP on the LIBE Delegation, Bettina Vollath

As Delbos-Corfield reported at her press conference at the end of the three day visit on Friday afternoon, Buxadé and Bay left the meetings on various occasions to give interviews to the press, “so they didn’t listen to all the people we had invited. We five women listened to everybody, from eight o’clock in the morning to nine in the evening, because this is our duty; not commenting on the delegation”, she added.

Bay and Buxadé published a joint statement on Bay’s Facebook page on Friday under the headline “It's time to end the persecution against Hungary!”, and concluding: “The verdict is final: we have not heard a single fact, not a date, not a concrete case to attest to the lack of respect for the rule of law” in Hungary which is instead, in the view of the nationalist and the far right, being victimised for trying to “protect the Hungarian people, their national and European identity, their conservative values, the family, and to refuse mass immigration”.

Reports and comments from the five other delegation members could not have been more different.

The S&D’s Bettina Vollath told Austrian public broadcaster ORF, that she had been “particularly shocked by the aggressiveness with which we were greeted by some interlocutors. An open dialogue and an honest exchange was in parts, not possible.”

As an example, Delbos-Corfield reported from the meetings with the two highest courts, where one judge had attacked the delegation openly.

“Some of the questions we asked, very politely, the judge told us he considered as in contempt of the court, and if we had been in a court he would already have punished us.”

“Some of the questions we asked, very politely, the judge told us he considered as in contempt of the court, and if we had been in a court he would already have punished us”  LIBE Committee Vice-chair and head of the   Delegation, Greens/EFA MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield

But as the meetings with the Supreme and the Constitutional Courts were both recorded, Delbos-Corfield added, and a copy of the recording has been promised to the delegation, journalists could get their own first-hand impression of what happened in these meetings.

The delegation chair also expressed her regret at the hostile and inaccurate reporting in large parts of the Hungarian media. The Left’s Malin Björk concurred in a tweet, saying, “We were attacked and lied about in the Orbán media even before we started the meetings!”

Anna Júlia Donáth commented that the meeting with Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga did not yield much as she “guided us through our meeting, where she should have answered the most important question of the #Pegasus scandal, as a minister authorising wiretapping: did the government use a cyber weapon against its own citizens?”

Varga had avoided journalists’ questions on the illegal surveillance scandal connected with the most powerful commercial spyware yet developed, earlier in the week.

In July, the Hungarian investigative online outlet Direkt36 had discovered 300 Hungarian phone numbers that were possibly targeted in 2018 and 2019 for surveillance with Pegasus, among them journalists, businessmen, critics of the government, public figures and politicians. The government has so far neither denied nor confirmed the use of the spyware.

For her own part, the Hungarian Justice Minister had tweeted before the MEP’s arrival: “A delegation of @EP_Justice comes to #Budapest this Thursday. Finally, we can ask them #face2face why do they think that #EU institutions can misuse their power. Looking forward to the meeting, we have no illusions though.”

Illusions were equally absent on the side of the majority of the delegation. Bettina Vollath put out her brief and stark conclusions on Twitter, arguing that since the start of the Article 7 procedure against Hungary four years ago, “the situation has, unfortunately, not improved in any area. The state of democracy and fundamental rights is critical (…) Hungary is developing in an authoritarian way”.

She added, “The separation of powers, media freedom and an independent judiciary are no longer guaranteed.”

The delegation will now draft a report about its findings which is due to be debated and voted on during the December plenary session.