EU countries on Wednesday extended a deadline for deciding on financial sanctions against Hungary by two months — but several countries, including Germany, issued rule-of-law warnings.
It was yet another snub from Berlin for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who received a frosty welcome there earlier this week.
The sanctions delay, which had been anticipated, gives EU countries until mid-December to decide whether to suspend about €7.5 billion in EU funds for Hungary over rule-of-law concerns, or whether to judge that reforms which Budapest proposed as a mediating measure are sufficient to drop the sanction.
In an attempt to secure German support ahead of the decision, Orbán traveled to Berlin on Monday to meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Yet the welcome was visibly reserved: The Hungarian leader was neither received with military honors nor did he get a press conference with the German leader — an unusual downgrading for Orbán’s first visit to Berlin since Scholz took office in December.
And on Wednesday, Scholz’s government joined other EU countries in firing a warning shot at Hungary that it must be serious about its promise to address widespread rule-of-law concerns.
During a meeting in Brussels of EU ambassadors, who approved the extension of the sanctions deadline (which is set to be rubber-stamped by EU interior ministers on Thursday), Germany expressed vocal support for a critical statement by Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Ireland. These countries urged the European Commission to provide “a thorough and updated risk analysis” that allows them to judge within the next two months whether Hungary’s proposed reforms are sufficient.
“The German government is committed to ensuring that existing deficits in the area of the rule of law in Hungary are remedied quickly and sustainably,” said a spokesperson for the German Foreign Office, adding that Berlin “welcomes a consistent application” of the EU’s rule-of-law conditionality mechanism.
Germany’s ruling three-party coalition has vowed to take a tougher line on rule of law than previous Chancellor Angela Merkel did, and Scholz’s coalition partners from the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) are pushing in particular for the chancellor to remain committed to that objective.
“The FDP wants proper implementation of the rule of law mechanism and expects the federal government to act accordingly” at the EU level, said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the deputy chair of the FDP group in the German parliament.
In an interview with German media outlets Cicero and Berliner Zeitung in Berlin on Tuesday, Orbán acknowledged that his meeting with Scholz on Monday had been difficult: “It’s good to talk to him,” Orbán said, according to the official translation. “That I have achieved nothing is another matter.”
The Hungarian leader mentioned differences concerning the rule of law and migration as well as EU reforms. On the latter point, he explicitly rejected Scholz’s push to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in making EU foreign policy decisions.
Asked whether it wasn’t contradictory that Hungary benefited so much from civil rights and liberties since the end of the Soviet Union some 30 years ago but is now restricting these values, for example when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights or media freedom, Orbán seemed perplexed.
“I haven’t thought about that yet. That’s a good question,” he said.