The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

E.U. proposes cutting funds to Hungary for rule-of-law breaches

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban departs after voting at a polling station in Budapest on April 3. (Akos Stiller/Bloomberg News)

Two days after nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a fourth consecutive term, European Union officials on Tuesday moved to hold Hungary accountable for what the bloc’s leaders say are violations of the rule of law, initiating for the first time a procedure that could withhold billions of euros in subsidies.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the immediate concern was about corruption. Orban has for years been accused of enriching his associates with E.U. money intended to support infrastructure, agriculture and other programs. And a new mechanism allows the bloc to suspend the self-management of subsidies by countries that allow the misuse of E.U. funds.

Von der Leyen said a formal letter was on its way to Budapest outlining the intentions of the E.U.'s executive arm to trigger what’s known as the “conditionality mechanism.”

At least 15 of the 27 member states — representing about 290 million people out of the total population of more than 440 million — would need to endorse it. From start to finish, cutting funds could take between six to eight months, an E.U. official said Tuesday.

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Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, responded to von der Leyen’s announcement by comparing Brussels to the prime minister’s domestic opposition — a mistake, he said, “as Hungarians have just rejected it by a large majority.”

Orban taunted the E.U. in his victory speech on Sunday night. “We won a victory so big that you can perhaps see it from the moon, and certainly from Brussels,” he said.

Many political analysts, though, say Orban and his party have been able to stay in power exactly because of the antidemocratic actions — remaking the constitution, quashing dissent, exerting control over the media, undermining judicial independence — that have drawn criticism from E.U. officials in Brussels and other European leaders over the years.

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Poland has similarly been locked in conflict with Brussels over the independence of its judiciary and other legal standards. And it has been regularly linked with Hungary in discussions about withholding funds. Already, the E.U. has withheld some payments to Poland and Hungary from a pandemic recovery fund.

But Poland has recently made conciliatory gestures toward Brussels. And it has undergone further rehabilitation since it became a linchpin of the Western response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, hosting stepped-up NATO forces and admitting nearly 2.5 million refugees.

Von der Leyen indicated Tuesday that the E.U. would not move quickly to trigger the conditionality mechanism against Poland, though she acknowledged the issues related to judicial independence remain unresolved.

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Poland was the top beneficiary of E.U. aid in the 2014-2020 budget, receiving 104 billion euros, or $118 billion. Hungary, whose population is about a quarter of the size of Poland’s, received 40 billion euros, or $45 billion.

Divisions between the two traditional allies have emerged during the war in Ukraine, with Polish officials refusing to meet in Budapest over what they perceived as Hungary’s meager response. Orban is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s staunchest ally in Europe, and he has condemned Russia’s assault on Ukraine without criticizing Putin.

Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.