Tensions within the European Union flared up once more as the European Commission initiated legal action against Hungary over its controversial “sovereignty law.” The legislation, championed by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and enacted by the parliament in December, has drawn criticism for its potential to curb individual freedoms and stifle dissent.
The law, officially titled the “sovereignty law”, grants the state authority to investigate individuals and organisations suspected of undermining Hungary’s sovereignty, with potential penalties of up to three years in prison. Orban defended the law, claiming it was essential to shield Hungary from external political interference.
The enforcement of the legislation relies on the newly established “Office for the Defence of Sovereignty”, which has the power to gather information on entities receiving foreign funding and deemed to influence the nation’s political discourse. Hungarian secret services are mandated to assist this newly formed authority.
Critics, including civil society and independent journalists, have expressed concerns over the law’s broad and vaguely defined scope, as well as its lack of judicial oversight. They fear that individuals opposing Orban’s political ideology may be unjustly targeted, with little recourse to challenge decisions made by the “sovereignty office”.
The European Commission echoed these concerns, stating that the law violates fundamental values and legal guarantees, including democracy, the right to privacy, protection of personal data, freedom of expression, information, and association, as well as the right to a fair trial.
The United States had previously condemned the law, describing it as employing “draconian tools” that could be used to intimidate and punish those with dissenting views.
Hungary now has two months to respond to the European Commission’s objections. The formal notice marks the first step in the infringement procedure, which could ultimately result in a lawsuit and daily fines before the European Court of Justice.
In response to the legal action, Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesperson for Orban’s government, expressed fury and alleged that the European Commission’s move aimed to protect George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire and founder of the Open Society Foundations.
This clash between Brussels and Budapest unfolded shortly after a recent summit where Orban lifted his veto on a €50-billion special fund for Ukraine. The decision followed pressure from other EU leaders and the European Parliament. During pre-summit negotiations, Orban had insisted on the immediate release of roughly €21 billion in recovery and cohesion funds, withheld by the European Commission due to persistent rule-of-law deficiencies in Hungary.
The executive branch remains steadfast, claiming that funds will only be released once Hungary fulfils specified “milestones” and conditions to address the ongoing situation.