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EU executive snubs Hungarian demand to oust top democracy official

BUDAPEST/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union executive on Tuesday snubbed a demand by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that it dismiss its top rule of law official for comments about Hungary’s “ailing democracy”.

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is seen as he departs from a meeting at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/File Photo

Orban, 57, has repeatedly clashed with the EU over his hardline stance on migration and minorities, as well as moves to increase state control of the courts, media, academics and NGOs.

Critics in the EU as well as international watchdogs say he defends nation states and ethnic majorities at the expense of fundamental human rights and democratic checks and balances.

In interview with Reuters last week, Orban rejected that criticism.

“When somebody says that democracy can be only liberal it’s an oppression,” Orban said, adding that accusations that Hungary violates the rule of law were “simply blah, blah, blah”.

On Monday, Orban wrote to EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, demanding that she dismiss her top rule of law official at the Brussels-based EU executive, Vera Jourova.

“According to the Vice President (Jourova), in Hungary a ‘sick democracy’ is being built,” Orban wrote in his letter, which was published on Tuesday.

Orban’s call for the removal of Jourova, a Czech who has a history of standing up against Soviet-imposed communist rule in eastern Europe after World War Two, comes ahead of the release on Wednesday of the Commission’s first-ever report on rule of law gaps across all the 27 EU member states.

“President von der Leyen works closely with Vice-President Jourova on the rule of law. The Vice-President has the President’s full trust,” a spokeswoman for the Commission told a news briefing on Tuesday when asked about Orban’s letter.

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“Our concerns when it comes to the rule of law in Hungary are well known. They will be addressed in our rule of law report, which we will present tomorrow.”

LOOMING ELECTION

Orban - who also long sought to vilify Frans Timmermans, Jourova’s predecessor in the job under the previous European Commission - has stepped up his Brussels bashing campaign as Hungary faces a slower-than-expected recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Orban portrays himself as a defender of Hungary’s sovereignty against foreign encroachment, including attacks from “Brussels bureaucrats”.

He has in the past sponsored a billboard campaign accusing the European Commission and his own former-ally-turned-foe, U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros, of plotting to destroy European civilisation through immigration.

Hungary, as well as his nationalist, eurosceptic allies ruling in another ex-communist EU state, Poland, are under EU investigations for undermining the rule of law.

The long-running battle will come to its head this year as the bloc is now looking to link access to EU money, including a new 750 billion euro coronavirus recovery fund, to respecting the rule of law.

The Hungarian economy shrank by 13.6% in the second quarter, the worst downturn in central Europe, 2020 inflation is seen at an eight-year-high and the forint is central Europe’s worst-performing currency.

Hungary’s weakened prospects could represent the biggest threat to Orban’s decade-long rule ahead of parliamentary elections in the first half of 2022.

Speaking to German magazine Der Spiegel on Friday, Jourova said: “Mr Orban likes to say he is building an illiberal democracy. I would say he is building an ailing democracy.

“...I fear that people in Hungary could one day discover that their last election was also their last free election.”

Additional reporting by Marine Strauss in Brussels and Thomas Escritt in Berlin; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Nick Macfie and Giles Elgood

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