(Reuters) – The European Union’s executive missed its own deadline to sign off on billions of euros in economic recovery aid to Hungary, delaying its decision in an attempt to win rule-of-law concessions from Budapest.
Hungary is set to receive 7.2 billion euros in EU stimulus funds, meant to kickstart economic growth mauled by the coronavirus pandemic.
The funds will start flowing once the Brussels-based European Commission accepts national plans on how to spend them, to ensure digital and green transitions, among others goals.
However, the Commission is using the money as leverage to push Hungary on its observance of the rule of law, an area where the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has clashed with the EU.
A spokeswoman for the Commission said on Monday it was still analysing the plan Budapest submitted, and might propose a longer delay should it consider “months rather than days” were still needed to decide on it.
While the spokeswoman declined to give detail[s], the bloc’s Economics Commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, said last week:
“We are working on aspects to do with the respect for the rule of law.”
The Hungarian Prime Minister’s office said in a statement to state news agency MTI that talks with the Commission had been close to completion, but that after Hungary’s law banning from schools materials seen as promoting homosexuality was passed, the European Commission came forward with what they said were “absurd demands”.
“The ideologically motivated political attacks obviously slow down the acceptance of the plan which was formulated earlier, in professional consultations,” the PM’s office said.
It added that talks were continuing with the Commission.
The Commission has long wanted Hungary to improve its public procurement process to combat “systemic irregularities” – or fraud.
Orban has also infuriated many of his EU peers in recent weeks with a new legislation that bans from schools materials seen as promoting homosexuality, the latest in a series of laws seen as discriminatory, and restricting people’s rights.
Budapest has clashed with the EU on multiple occasions, over Orban’s treatment of migrants and gay people, as well as the tightening of curbs around the freedom of media, academics and judges.
Orban portrays himself as a crusader for what he says are traditional Catholic values under pressure from the liberal West.