Thursday, 22 April 2021 13:08

Hungarian civil society raises alarm over NGO law change Featured

Hungarian civil society organisations have expressed concern over planned changes to legislation on non-governmental organisations (NGOs), despite cautiously welcoming the repeal of a law on transparency that curbed foreign-funded NGOs.

That 2017 law was struck down by the EU’s top court last year and a new draft bill on NGOs submitted to parliament late on Tuesday (20 April) would repeal it.

Top EU court strikes down Hungary’s NGO financing law

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said on Thursday (18 June) that the restrictions imposed on the financing of civil organisations by foreigners in Hungary were “discriminatory and unjustified” and went against EU law.

“The repeal of the legislation is an important step for NGOs, as it will end nearly four years of unnecessary and harmful stigma… but the new bill that replaces it raises concerns,” 19 groups from the Civilisation Coalition, an umbrella group of Hungarian NGOs, said on Wednesday.

Among the organisations’ concerns is a proposal in the new bill that the State Audit Office (ÁSZ) carry out and publish annual audits of NGOs with a budget of over €55,000, even if the organisations do not receive public funds.

Those raising concerns note that religious and sports organisations – some of which receive huge amounts of public money – will be exempt from such audits.

The 2017 law brought in by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government required NGOs that receive more than €24,000 of foreign funding per year to register as such and publicly list their donors.

According to critics, the law targeted Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation supports human rights groups that have been critical of Orbán.

Hungary argued the legislation was needed for transparency, but the law was boycotted by several NGOs in protest.

The Civilisation Coalition was founded in response to the law and said the legislation’s real purpose was to stigmatise NGOs, and also exclude them from applying for EU funds.

The European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, ruled in June 2020 that the restrictions notably violated the freedom of movement of capital and freedom of association.

In February, the European Commission raised pressure on the Hungarian authorities to implement the ruling, the European Commission notified Budapest it considers it to be in breach of the treaties.

The issue is among a list of many disputes between EU authorities and Budapest over topics including the perceived weakening of the rule of law and Orbán’s tough line against immigration.

Commission pushes Hungary to implement NGO judgement among worries it is ‘too little too late’

Raising pressure on the Hungarian authorities to implement a June 2020 ruling of the EU top court, the European Commission notified Budapest it considers it to be in breach of the treaties. Critics welcomed the move but warned that the EU executive’s tardiness is worrying and only emboldens those who disrespect rule of law.