After being occupied by tourists and festival guests all summer, the capital is gradually quietening down and facing its problems. Unfortunately there are more than enough of these. However, it seems that at least one is finally being handled.
The strain on Hungarian-Norwegian relations remains unresolved, with Hungary’s government denying it is undermining European values after Norway’s Minister of European Economic Area and European Union Affairs, Vidar Helgesen, made a two-pronged attack saying Hungary had “launched a crackdown on civil society”.
The relationship between Budapest and Oslo came under further pressure when the UK’s Financial Times published a letter from Helgesen asking the European Union to consider a stronger response to Hungary’s “journey towards becoming an illiberal state”, which is “already well under way”.
While Helgesen acknowledged that Norway is not a member of the European Union, he said the country strove to uphold the EU’s democratic values and the bloc should demonstrate “in no uncertain terms that it will not accept the re-establishment of an illiberal state within its borders”.
Helgesen wrote: “Norway is closely integrated with the EU and deeply committed to the values that underpin European integration. These values are now being challenged by the Hungarian government, a member state and a recipient of massive EU funding. Given this situation, I am puzzled and disappointed that a response from the EU institutions has been largely lacking.”
He took the matter a step further when speaking to Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. Calling for the consideration of sanctions by the European Commission, he said: “We are very worried about what we have seen developing over several years, [the] undermining of democracy and the country’s laws. We now appeal to the EU to not keep silent about a hollowing out of democratic values in an EU member nation.”
The Hungarian government responded with a statement released by the secretary of state for European development, refuting Helgesen‘s assertions and calling for a “quick and successful” conclusion to the issues between the two countries.
The strain on relations stems from a dispute over charitable funds from Norway that the government says are being used in a politically biased way to fund opposition movements in Hungary. In May investigators from the Government Control Office visited a number of NGOs involved in the distribution of the money. Norway denies the allegations but has blocked further funding in response to what it calls a “police action” against these organisations.
Helgesen said in his letter: “Similar funds supported by Norway exist in 15 other EU member states and are valued by NGOs and governments alike. Norway’s support to Hungary is part of the EUR 1.8bn contribution made by the European Economic Area and European Free Trade Association countries to social and economic cohesion in Europe. Hungary is now violating the terms of the agreement for these funds, most of which go to the Hungarian government.
“In response, we have suspended all payments to the Hungarian government, while maintaining the NGO fund.”
Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, which collectively comprise the European Economic Area, are outside the European Union. The funds, according to the EEA website, are distributed to projects and groups in “sectors ranging from environmental protection and climate change to civil society and research”.
Hungary has been allocated EUR 82.3 million in such funding over the past five years.