Press play to listen to this article
Katalin Cseh is a Hungarian member of the European Parliament with the Renew Europe group.
With the dismissal of the top editor of Hungary’s largest news site, Viktor Orbán’s oligarchs have strangled the last bulwark of Hungary’s independent media.
If Europe lets them get away with it, it will be complicit in the demise of what’s left of free speech in Hungary.
Money will speak louder than words: If the EU cares about what is left of Hungary’s free media, it needs to help fund it.
Imperfect as they may be, the EU has tools at its disposal — it just needs to figure out how to use them.
The deal reached by European leaders in Brussels last month — setting out the next long-term budget and recovery fund — fell short of unequivocally tying funding to respect for EU values and the rule of law. It included only a vague commitment to creating a rule of law mechanism, allowing Hungary and Poland to claim they had successfully killed off the initiative.
But the absence of a stronger mechanism doesn’t leave the EU powerless to take action. What will be decisive is the way funds are administered.
Hungary is set to receive a whopping €50 billion, a third of its annual GDP. This money is unlikely to reach the independent institutions that need it most, as it will be funneled through a government that has openly lobbied to block funding to these places, including media organizations, and insists that no euro can be spent without Orbán’s oversight.
This is part of a campaign to cripple civil society and local governments, following the sweeping victories of the opposition at the last municipal elections. Beyond vicious smear campaigns, the ultimate goal is always the same: to undermine their finances.
Budapest, for example, recently declined €214 million-worth of development aid via a Norway Grant after the grant authorities refused to give the government control over how the money was spent, according to reports.
Orbán, clearly, is not interested in financial help unless he’s the gatekeeper. EU efforts will fall flat if they fail to grapple with this.
There are some heartening signs that the European Commission will rise to the challenge. The institution’s Hungarian-language Twitter account in July announced easier access to funds for cultural and creative sectors, including news media outlets. And Brussels did not shy away from defending EU values when it came to rejecting applications for funds from Polish towns with homophobic “LGBTQ-free zones.”
The Commission now needs to follow up with concrete measures, including emergency funding for media organizations and an investigation into concentrated ownership structures in Hungary’s media landscape.
Some EU funding streams — in member states and in candidate countries — are already directly managed through EU agencies on the ground or via designated independent bodies like the European Investment Bank. These programs could serve as an example for how to put EU money to effective use when there are rule of law concerns in a specific country, and the EU should increase the visibility and efficiency of these channels, more closely involve civil society in them and work to cut red tape.
The next step would be to shape the rule of law mechanism in such a way that EU funding programs automatically come under direct EU management when a country faces infringement procedures related to fundamental values.
But before there can be strong EU action, there needs to be strong political will. And that’s where the problem lies.
The reaction of the center-right European People’s Party — Fidesz’s European allies — in the European Parliament has been a deafening silence. Having ignored its previous “red line” — the politically motivated expulsion of the Central European University, which now operates in Vienna — the EPP is no closer to expelling Orbán’s party following the death of Index, the independent media outlet where dozens of staff resigned en masse in protest against the removal of its top editor.
Of course, these European politicians are not the ones dismantling democracy in Hungary — that work is being done by Orbán and his party. Neither will they be the ones to defeat Orbán and rebuild the rule of law, and nor should they be — that will fall to us, Hungary’s democratic opposition.
But dishonest compromises and the complicit silence of Fidesz’ European allies are helping Orbán consolidate power and control, as are the vast sums of EU money flowing to Budapest without adequate oversight.
To spell it out clearly: European conservative elites are blocking Brussels from taking action that would protect our shared European values from the Hungarian PM’s heinous assaults.
Through the new budget, European institutions have the chance to put their money where their mouth is. Statements of solidarity are laudable. But direct funding to the remaining independent institutions of Hungary speaks louder than words. We in the European Parliament are determined to make that happen.
Those who dismiss the erosion of free press in Hungary as the problem of a small, faraway country should think again: Orbán is exporting his propaganda machine and pro-government media tycoons are making inroads in the Balkans.
Voters across the bloc can hold their European representatives accountable. Orbán’s enablers should be asked tough questions about the haunting images of sobbing journalists in that Budapest newsroom.
These journalists are people with families and mortgages, who took a courageous leap into the dark to do the right thing. They deserve Europe’s support.