Hungary needs to strengthen the independence of its court “quite quickly” if it hopes to get any of the 15.4 billion euros in COVID recovery stimulus funds earmarked for Budapest, according to a top EU official.
The EU can provide Hungary with grants worth 5.8 billion euros ($6.20 billion) and low-interest loans worth 9.6 billion euros, but it has postponed all payments unless Budapest adopts measures to strengthen judicial independence and combat corruption.
“They will have to adopt laws, which will strengthen the position of the judges, which will strengthen the anti-corruption actions,” Vera Jourova, a European Commission deputy head, said after a Hungarian delegation held talks at the Commission this week.
Jourova, who is responsible for upholding democratic standards in the 27-nation union, added that improving public procurement in Hungary was another requirement.
“These are very concrete things, which the Hungarian government has promised to correct or install very soon… time works against them,” she said in comments cleared for publication late on Friday.
Hungary and Poland are the bloc’s only member states lagging behind in getting the funds, amid long-standing criticism from the Commission that their nationalist, populist governments are damaging democracy and the rule of law.
Last year, the EU executive suspended the recovery funds for Budapest and proposed freezing another 7.5 billion euros that Hungary would normally receive from the EU budget as part of funds transferred to poorer member states in the bloc.
European taxpayers “don’t want their money to go to places where there is no respect for rule of law, where life is very difficult for the LGBT people or other minorities”, Jourova said.
During his 12 years in power, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has had many bitter run-ins with Brussels over the rights of gays and migrants, as well as his tightening of state controls over NGOs, academics, the courts and media.
The EU Commission has put an end-year deadline on accessing the COVID funds, though several countries have already said they need more time to spend the large emergency aid package.
Hungary, however, has yet to win the Commission’s approval before it can access the money, and first has to fulfil more than 20 conditions – or “milestones” – related to the judiciary, public procurement and corruption.
“Those supermilestones for the judiciary have to be done soon” for that to be realistic, said Jourova.
Under pressure from an economic crisis at home, Orban has sought to strike a deal with Brussels, while also wrangling with the EU on subjects including support for Ukraine and punishing Russia for invading its neighbour.
The bloc has also long frowned at what international watchdogs say is Orban channelling EU funds to associates to entrench himself in power. Orban says Hungary is no more corrupt than others.
“Unfortunately, at this stage Hungarian government has a deficit of trust,” said Jourova of tense relations with Budapest.