EU moves to fine Hungary for flouting ruling on NGO law

Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, right, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a news conference at a meeting marking 30 years of central Europe's informal body of cooperation called the Visegrad Group, at a conference center in Krakow, Poland, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, right, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a news conference at a meeting marking 30 years of central Europe's informal body of cooperation called the Visegrad Group, at a conference center in Krakow, Poland, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BRUSSELS – The European Union on Thursday took an important step toward fining Hungary for refusing to lift restrictions on the financing of non-governmental organizations from abroad.

The step comes after the EU's top court ruled that restrictions imposed by the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the foreign financing of independent groups are incompatible with the 27-nation bloc's law. Many of the groups focus on civil rights and democracy issues.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, is sending a “letter of formal notice” to the nationalist government in Budapest giving it two months to explain why it’s not complying.

The Commission, which monitors the way EU laws are applied, can then refer the matter back to the court with a proposal on the size of the fine.

In 2017, Hungary adopted legislation forcing NGOs receiving foreign funding of more than 7.2 million forints ($24,200) a year to register with the courts and identify themselves as foreign-funded in their publications.

NGOs also have to list foreign sponsors giving more than 500,000 forints ($1,680) annually.

The law is nominally meant to increase transparency among civic groups and boost efforts against money laundering and the financing of terrorism. But Amnesty International, among those targeted, has described it as a “vicious and calculated assault on civil society” meant to silence critical voices in Hungary.

The European Court of Justice ruled last year that “Hungary has introduced discriminatory and unjustified restrictions on foreign donations to civil society organizations, in breach of its obligations” under the EU's governing treaties.