BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Wednesday launched legal action against Hungary’s right-wing government over a new law that allows authorities to investigate and prosecute people accused of undermining the country’s sovereignty.
The “ sovereignty protection act ” took effect in December. It created a government authority with the power to gather information on any groups or individuals that benefit from foreign funding and influence public debate. Hungary’s secret services can assist in the authority’s investigations.
The law allows prison terms of up to three years for anyone convicted of violating it. Opponents compare the act to Russia’s “foreign agent” law. They say its broad language can be used to arbitrarily target government critics.
The European Commission, which monitors the application of legislation across the 27 EU member countries, said Hungary’s measure “violates several provisions” of the bloc’s law and that it sent a letter of formal notice to Budapest, the first step in legal action.
The commission raised concerns that the law threatens EU democratic values, undermines the principle of democracy and the electoral rights of European citizens, and also infringes on other fundamental rights, including the right to privacy, personal data protection and freedom of expression and association.
Hungary has two months to respond to the letter and address the commission’s concerns.
The notice represented the latest salvo in a long-running battle between Brussels and Budapest.
The commission, which is the EU’s executive branch, blocked substantial amounts of money from Hungary in 2022 out of concern that democratic backsliding by Orban’s government could put the bloc’s common budget at risk.
The billions withheld mostly involved “cohesion funds.” This pot of money, one of the biggest pieces of the joint budget, helps countries maintain their infrastructure at EU standards. They must apply for the money to fund building and other projects.
In December, the commission granted Hungary access to around 10.2 billion euros ($11 billion) after Orban’s government addressed its concerns about justice reforms. But some 21 billion euros ($22.6 billion) remain frozen.
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