Brussels shoots itself in the foot with crackdown on Hungarian NGO transparency

Their credibility just took another blow. It’s difficult to take seriously this latest move by the European Commission.

“[T]hese are ridiculous points,” said Prime Minister Orbán, commenting on the European Commission’s infringement procedure against Hungary for the country’s law on non-governmental organizations. “If someone accepts money from abroad, they will have to declare it. End of story. What exactly does this violate?”

The Commission’s reasoning is ridiculous, the prime minister said in a radio interview last Friday, adding, “If we were to accept these arguments, we ourselves would become ridiculous,” he emphasized.

In a recent letter to the Hungarian government, the Commission raised concerns over the country’s modified law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). According to the law, Hungary requires NGOs receiving funding from abroad that amounts to approximately 24,000 EUR – an amount that is more than twice the amount that appears in the money laundering act – to declare this clearly in their publications.

The aim is to increase transparency, especially in light of growing concern in many democracies around the world of foreign attempts to influence domestic politics. (See details here, here and here) The EC claims that this law violates the “provisions on the free movement of capital,” “indirectly discriminates and disproportionately restricts donations from abroad to civil society organizations” and violates “the right to freedom of association” as well as the “right to protection of private life and personal data.”

Reading the Commission’s contorted arguments, you can understand why the prime minister called them ridiculous.

First of all, the relevant European body, the Venice Commission (aka, European Commission for Democracy through Law) released a professional legal opinion on the draft law before voting in the Hungarian Parliament and, in addition to recommending some administrative modifications, said it “pursues the legitimate aim of ensuring transparency of civil society organisations.”

Secondly, many governments around the world have grown concerned about attempts by foreigners to influence their country’s politics and public discourse, and those governments are responding by stepping up regulations – at the very least, by requiring greater transparency. For example, Israel, the United States, Canada have similar but oftentimes stricter legislation than Hungary.

And it doesn’t stop there. Get this.

Even the European Parliament and European Commission have proposed similar transparency measures.

The European Commission – just a few days before sending Hungary the letter on the NGO law – put out a working paper on the “Interinstitutional Agreement on a mandatory Transparency Register,” requiring declarations from non-profit organizations that are similar to the Hungarian law.

Compare this last point to the Hungarian legislation, which would only require declaration of foreign funding above 24,000 EUR.

So what’s behind this peculiar move by the Commission? Are they unaware that this issue of foreign entities attempting to influence a country’s politics is becoming a matter of growing concern around the world? Do they not know that the Hungarian legislation is similar or even lighter than the laws of other democracies that require transparency of foreign funding? Is it because they missed the opinion of the Venice Commission? Or is there some other reason?

Whatever it is, with statements like these, the bureaucrats in Brussels damage their own credibility with the governments of member states – and with the citizens.

“The question is how much longer Brussels can stand being – how shall I put it – the laughing stock of Europe,” Prime Minister Orbán said. “The whole of the European Union is in trouble because its leaders and bureaucrats adopt decisions like this.”

Hungary will insist on the necessary level of transparency. Hungarians have the right to know if foreign entities are fiddling with our public life and politics, and the government will defend that right.