Hungary and EU Face Off Over New Sovereign Defense Law

budapest, hungary — Hungary has rejected criticism of its new sovereignty protection law after the European Union instigated legal action against Budapest on Wednesday over concerns the legislation breaches basic democratic rights. 

Hungary passed the Defense of National Sovereignty Act in December 2023, creating a new investigative body with sweeping powers to gather information on any groups or individuals that receive foreign funding and influence public debate. Hungary’s intelligence services can assist in investigations with little or no judicial oversight.

The legislation says that “the use of foreign funds in the context of elections should be punishable under criminal law” with a penalty of up to three years in jail.

Critics say the law could potentially target a broad range of people in public life.

“We have very vague provisions about a potential threat to sovereignty coming from foreign funding which might affect the voters in Hungary. So, we’re using very broad definitions here,” Barbara Grabowska-Moroz, senior fellow at Central European University’s Democracy Institute, said in an interview with VOA.

EU criticism

The European Union, which has repeatedly criticized what it sees as democratic backsliding in Hungary in recent years, announced Wednesday it had launched infringement proceedings against Budapest.

“The [EU] Commission considers that the laws violate EU law, in particular when it comes to the principle of democracy and the electoral rights of the EU citizens, the fundamental rights enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU Data Protection Law and several rules applicable to the internal market,” EU spokesperson Anitta Hipper told reporters in Brussels.

“In addition, the setup of a new authority with the wide-ranging powers, and a strict regime of monitoring enforcement and sanctioning, also risks to seriously harm the democracy in Hungary. In terms of the process, Hungary has now two months to reply to the letter of formal notice,” Hipper said.

Hungary repeatedly refused VOA requests for an interview.

Writing on X, government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs said the law was introduced after Hungarian opposition parties took foreign funding during the 2022 election, including from Hungarian-born U.S. financier George Soros, a frequent target of the ruling Fidesz Party. Opposition parties deny acting illegally.

The law states that “Hungary’s sovereignty is increasingly under unlawful attack. … In order to ensure democratic debate, transparency in public and social decision-making processes, disclosure of foreign interference attempts and the prevention of such attempts, an independent body should be set up to investigate them, and the use of foreign funds in the context of elections should be punishable under criminal law.”

Critics have compared the legislation to Russia’s foreign agents law, which has forced out several nongovernmental organizations and shuttered civil society.

Consolidating power

The new investigative body is another tool for the government to consolidate its grip on power, according to journalist Andras Petho, founder of the Direkt36 investigative journalism center, one of the few independent journalism organizations left in Hungary.

“Its responsibilities and its role is very vague. Basically, it can look into the activities of anyone — it can be private individuals, it can be organizations, the media, it can be civil society organizations. So, it’s very vague. That’s why we and a lot of other people think that it’s dangerous for the public discourse,” Petho told VOA.

“The government has been building this story, this narrative, for years now, that Hungary — by which they mean themselves — they are under attack from foreign interests, forces. And basically, anyone who criticizes them, or anyone who is not actually serving their interests, is part of that foreign operation,” he said.

Miklos Ligeti, head of legal affairs at Transparency International in Budapest, said the new law could target organizations like his.

“We believe that the new regulation — the whole sovereignty package — was designed to put further constraints on operations and activities of those civil society organizations which are successfully embarrassing the government,” he said.

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