The End of the EEA-Hungary Friendship? Hungary continues to challenge internationally funded programmes
October 24, 2016
- The EEA and Norway Grants funded Energiaklub Climate Policy Institute became a victim of Hungarian authorities trying to undermine the influence of international actors.
- Hungary’s hostile attitude towards international funding and involvement in domestic affairs remains unchanged.
- The current political climate in Hungary leaves the country prone to “illiberal democratic” practices, which is raising concerns among the EEA community.
A couple of days ago it became known that Hungarian authorities had, without any warning, searched the premises of Energiaklub Climate Policy Institute, a non-profit organization located in Budapest, and seized some 300 emails, contracts and invoices. The authorities claimed that the search was carried out as a part of a large-scale tax fraud investigation. However, a tax investigation of Energiaklub had already been conducted only a couple of months earlier and no inconsistencies were discovered then. Naturally, this makes one question the real motivation behind the search. Were the authorities truly attempting to discover tax fraud, or were they simply harassing Energiaklub for a completely different reason? Could it have been politically motivated? One notion that makes the latter not so unlikely is the fact that Energiaklub had just completed a project that was funded by the EEA and Norway Grants. The project, which evolved around climate adaptation training, can hardly be seen a threat to the current Hungarian government; however, international funding and involvement in domestic affairs might be, at least from a Hungarian perspective.
The EEA and Norway Grants is a funding programme initiated by the countries in the European Economic Area, namely Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. With these grants, these countries aim to contribute to the reduction of economic and social disparities in Europe, and to the strengthening of bilateral relations. 16 countries, mainly located in Central and Southern Europe, have since 2004 received millions of EUR in funding for projects and programmes in their respective countries. Among the beneficiary countries one can also find the Visegrad Four. In order to actually receive funding from the EEA countries, certain standards have to be met: beneficiary countries have to commit to the promotion of basic European and democratic values, such as equality, tolerance and justice, and they have to follow certain rules and guidelines for grant management. Most of the recipient countries seem to have no objections against these funding conditions. However, it looks as if there may be one honourable exception: yes, our ‘illiberal democratic’ friend Hungary.
Relations between the EEA countries and Hungary seemed to be friendly once again; however, this incident led many people to question whether or not Hungary really was willing to play by the rules, and if there would be more problems like this in the future.
For those who are familiar with the current political climate in Hungary, it should come as no surprise that the Hungarian authorities are attempting to undermine the influence of international actors, or renege on obligations to the international community. The fact that they are now questioning and trying to discredit programmes funded by the EEA and Norway Grants is only a natural consequence of this. This is actually not the first time Hungary has challenged the EEA countries and their grant programme: in May 2014, Hungarian authorities decided that the responsibility for control and implementation of the Grants would be moved from central government offices to an independent state-owned company. This was a clear breach of previous agreements and conditions for funding. The Norwegian Ministers of EU Affairs Vidar Helgesen was quick to state that Hungary’s behaviour was simply unacceptable. Consequently, the EEA chose to suspend all financial support (the last chunk of a total allocation of 153,3 million EUR) to programmes in Hungary. Then, in November 2015, almost one and a half years after funding was frozen, Hungarian authorities suddenly turned around and agreed to go back to initial agreements. Suspensions were lifted immediately, and money from the EEA was once again flowing into Hungary. Resisting such a vast amount of ‘free money’ was perhaps too difficult in the end, even for politicians attempting desperately to avoid the obligations that necessarily come with it. Relations between the EEA countries and Hungary seemed to be friendly once again; however, this incident led many people to question whether or not Hungary really was willing to play by the rules, and if there would be more problems like this in the future. The recent incident is proof that these worries were not unjustified.
Considering the great increase in nationalist sentiments we are currently witnessing, we should expect to see more attempts to limit indirect international influence, such as the EEA and Norway Grants, in Hungary.
It is too early to say whether or not Hungarian authorities will continue to challenge the EEA and the programmes they are funding in Hungary. Nevertheless, considering the great increase in nationalist sentiments we are currently witnessing, we should expect to see more attempts to limit indirect international influence, such as the EEA and Norway Grants, in Hungary. What the consequences of such behaviour will be is hard to estimate. On the one hand, it is important that the EEA stands by its conditions and principles, and suspends funding if or when they see that the obligations of beneficiary countries are not being upheld or fulfilled. On the other, it is also important that the EEA does not follow the example of Hungarian authorities and abandon the Hungarian people and civil society. In the end, it is ordinary people that suffer the most from a funding freeze, not corrupt right-wing politicians.
Author : EUROPEUM