Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Ceisteanna (24)

Niall Collins

Ceist:

24. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the re-election of Mr. Viktor Orbán in Hungary; his further views on the threat to freedom and democracy in Hungary and the wider implications for the European Union; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21309/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Ceist ar Foreign)

I would like to hear the views of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the re-election, for the third time, of Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán, especially given what he says and stands for, and the potential threat to freedom and democracy in Hungary.

The election in Hungary resulted in a two thirds majority for the ruling party led by the Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán. Engagement with all EU member states is a key imperative for Ireland in advancing and protecting our interests in the European Union. In that context, we raise not only issues of shared interest with our partners but also issues of concern. The Government will continue to work with the Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán, and his administration to ensure the European Union is equipped for the collective challenges we face, not least in addressing the issues of greatest concerns to citizens, including Brexit and the European Union’s future finances.

Respect for the fundamental values on which the European Union is founded and which are set out in the treaty, including respect for the rule of law and freedom of expression, is a crucial underpinning for all EU member states and that is a message we also convey.

There are concerns about the civic space available for NGOs to continue to operate in Hungary. The overall media environment in Hungary has also deteriorated further in recent weeks with the closure of a major independent newspaper.

The European Commission is, in the first instance, charged with ensuring the application of the treaties and responsible for promoting the general interests of the European Union. Last December it announced that it was referring Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union in relation, inter alia, to the laws on higher education and NGOs which were adopted in 2017. In the case of these two issues, Hungary is considered to have failed to address EU concerns about these laws or amend the legislation to bring it into line with EU standards. These cases are likely to be heard by the court later this year. Notwithstanding this, it is important that Hungary and the Commission engage on these issues and that ultimately a resolution be achieved, if possible, without the need for formal court action.

Fianna Fáil has many concerns about Mr. Orbán's re-election, especially in the context of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary. International observers have noted their concerns about intimidation, xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and campaign funding. The Minister may be aware of the preliminary report of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, following the election. It states:

The [8 April] parliamentary elections were characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis. Voters had a wide range of political options but intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate, hindering voters’ ability to make a fully-informed choice ... Fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate. Access to information as well as the freedoms of the media and association have been restricted, including by recent legal changes.

It is not a stretch to say that, while the elections may have been free, they were certainly far from fair.

Mr. Orbán's party, Fidesz, is affiliated with the European People's Party, EPP, of which the Minister's own party is a member. Has the Minister raised concerns within that grouping about the activities of Mr. Orbán and the direction he is taking Hungary?

The role of Hungary as a member of the European Union needs to be one of respecting the treaties and rules so that all member states, including Hungary, have laws that are consistent with those. If they do not, then it is the job of the European institutions, primarily the European Commission, to raise concerns and, if necessary, take action. The threat of action or the taking of legal action can happen in respect of all states, be it on environmental law, protecting NGOs or minorities, or ensuring free and fair elections. The Commission guards a series of areas that are required to ensure consistency with the treaties of the EU and to be a member state. That is its primary role.

There is an ongoing conversation as well as the potential for legal cases between the Commission and Hungary. That is where the matter should be addressed. There is an opportunity for political conversation and discussion, be that within the EPP, other groups or around the Foreign Affairs Council table where differences of policy are often explained and played out, for example, an approach towards migration. That is politics, though, and some electorates in some countries in the EU have chosen governments that have different views than ours. That is the way it is.

The Minister is right about this being politics, but politics has to try to work to put these issues right. It is a fact and a matter of public record that Mr. Orbán seeks to control the judiciary and the courts, has targeted civil society, NGOs and the education system, has sought to scapegoat refugees and migrants, and has actively rallied against the EU and what it stands for. It is on the record that this man does not stand for the values or ideals of the EU.

As the Minister stated, the European Commission has referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice regarding a number of matters-----

-----but a range of issues are causing concern. I will press the Minister harder and ask him for his view on this issue. Mr. Orbán's party is affiliated with the same European Parliament grouping to which the Minister's party is affiliated, which must be a concern. The Minister stated that there had been political discussions within various groups and at Council meetings, but we need to go further. Would a collective action of, for example, expelling Mr. Orbán's party from the EPP not send a stronger signal? Will the Minister give more information on this front? Mr. Orbán's modus operandi, the direction he is taking Hungary and the influence that is having on Poland are very worrying.

There are concerns about the anti-immigrant feeling and anti-Brussels rhetoric that at times come from the Hungarian Government, but the way to address that is to challenge and debate where possible. If policy decisions are contrary to the treaties, we should deal with the issue in a way that is consistent with how the treaties are supposed to function, that is, the European Commission does its job. If Ireland is not doing what it needs to do, the European Commission comes knocking on our door. That is the obligation that comes with EU membership. There is a significant upside to membership in terms of opportunities, but there are also obligations.

I listened to the Taoiseach this morning. I am also strongly in favour of enlargement to the east. The stability that the EU can bring to the Balkans is something that we have a responsibility to deliver for them and to them, but that does not mean that, when countries join, they do not have to abide by the rules. If the EU allowed a situation in which the treaties were no longer respected, we would be in a difficult space. We will be challenged in that regard, so this is how we should approach the matter.