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Hungary leader grapples with EU as corruption concerns rise

In this Friday, April 6, 2018, file photo, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's pauses while delivering a speech during the final electoral rally of his Fidesz party in Szekesfehervar, Hungary.

DARKO VOJINOVIC/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By PABLO GORONDI | Associated Press | Published: March 17, 2019

BUDAPEST, Hungary — As the Hungarian prime minister's conflicts with the European Union appear headed to a breaking point, calls are increasing for greater scrutiny of his government's spending of the bloc's funds.

An opposition lawmaker in Hungary has gathered more than 470,000 signatures to pressure Prime Minister Viktor Orban into joining the budding European Public Prosecutor's Office as Orban's Fidesz party may be suspended or expelled next week from the main center-right group in the European Parliament.

The EU has allocated Hungary 25 billion euros ($28.3 billion) in the 2014-2020 budget period, but critics say funds are often spent on overpriced or unnecessary projects padding the pockets of the allies of Orban, whose anti-EU campaigns over migration policies and national sovereignty have gotten him into trouble with the European People's Party as well as with the EU itself, which Orban accuses of increasing its powers to the detriment of the member states.

Despite the conflicts with Brussels, Hungary has been among the most successful EU countries in retrieving the bloc's support, with 32 percent of available funds drawn down from the current budget. An EU proposal for the 2021-2027 period, however, could see Hungary's subsidies cut by 24 percent compared to the current seven-year cycle — a budget restructuring necessitated in part by Brexit.

Independent lawmaker Akos Hadhazy launched a petition in September meant to gather 1 million signatures and hopefully pressure the Orban government into joining the European Public Prosecutor's Office, a new body planned to begin anti-corruption investigations over the use of EU funds at the end of 2020.

Hadhazy and other critics have long maintained that Hungary's chief prosecutor, Peter Polt, has failed to investigate many cases of suspected corruption, some even seen touching Orban's family.

In Transparency International's latest annual survey on corruption in the public sector, published in January, Hungary sits in 26th place out of the 28 EU countries, bettering only Greece and Bulgaria, even despite a slight improvement in the last year.

"There are two bastions which keep this populist regime in power — one is the chief prosecutor and the other is public media and government propaganda," Hadhazy said last week while helping activists gather signatures. Polt "has been successfully attempting to whitewash the corruption affairs involving the Hungarian government ... and the most prominent politicians."

"This political regime, which is infectious and dangerous for the European Union, is being supported by the European Union subsidies," Hadhazy said.

More than 470,000 Hungarians have already signed his petition, which is not legally binding.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto on Monday defended Polt, calling criticism of the former Fidesz parliamentary candidate "a coordinated series of political attacks."

"In Hungary, the Chief Prosecutor's Office investigates and has investigated all cases which it considered justified," Szijjarto said. Hungary has rejected joining the European office citing national sovereignty concerns and even misgivings about its quality.

The list of renovations and constructions partly funded by the EU in Budapest is long and imposing. It includes 180 billion forints ($648 million) given for the city's fourth subway line, 11.8 billion forints ($42.4 million) for the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, 5.7 billion forints ($20.5 million) for the reopening of Buda Castle's Garden Bazaar and 3.3 billion forints ($11.8 billion) for construction at City Park's ice-skating rink, Europe's largest. EU funds covered between 39 and 89 percent of those projects' total costs.

While Hungary may have to repay funds to the EU for projects found not to comply with EU rules, observers say there's plenty left over for the favored few.

"In the past years, it has become clear that there are a few businesspeople close to the government whose companies nearly always win the large public contracts," said Katalin Erdelyi, an award-winning investigative journalist at the atlatszo.hu website. "The investments are frequently overpriced, costing much more than initial estimates."

There are numerous white elephants, too, public procurement projects built with the only apparent purpose of using up as many EU funds as possible, Erdelyi said.

One such endeavor is a bridge and "bicycle adventure park" which forms part of a bike path running from the town of Hatvan, 37 miles west of Budapest.

Safety concerns over its shoddy construction mean few bikers use the installations and what could have been a simple bridge, resembles, without explanation, a meandering highway.

With hundreds of Hungarian media outlets backing the government and Polt considered to frequently look the other way, it's often been up to Atlatszo and other journalists and watchdog groups to dig deep into the alleged corruption cases.

"It would be very good if Hungary joined the European Prosecutor's Office," Erdelyi said. "It would be much easier to uncover the deals suspected of corruption and confirm whether or not there was any misuse of European Union subsidies."

Regarding Orban's conflict with the EPP, his ruling Fidesz party could be suspended or ejected from the group when the party's political assembly meets March 20. For now, Orban has said repeatedly that he would prefer to stay in the center-right alliance, Europe's largest, but wants to transform it into an anti-immigration force.

The long-brewing conflicts with the EPP have also been exacerbated by EU proceedings launched last year against Hungary over concerns about the rule of law and democratic EU values since Orban's return to power in 2010.

Istvan Hegedus, a former Fidesz lawmaker and now chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, a Budapest-based civic group dedicated to Hungary's European integration, says Orban, despite all his clashes with the EU, is unlikely to break Hungary away from the bloc, if only to keep getting EU money.

"The funds, in part, generated non-sustainable growth, but if these financial resources were to end, the Hungarian economy would be in a much more difficult situation," Hegedus said, naming EU farm subsidies as one of those vital for Hungary.

Though "he's not there yet," there could come a time — for example, if the radical right-wing populist breakthrough Orban is predicting fails to materialize in the coming years — when Orban grows tired of what he sees as the EU's increasing encroachment.

Orban "is a politician who thinks in revolutionary terms ... and he may even try to risk leaving the EU," Hegedus said, although Hungarians in general overwhelmingly favor EU membership. "He will have to think over a thousand times whether he'll give up these EU subsidies."

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