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Transparency International Hungary: Gov't Anti-Corruption Package likely to be "Missed Opportunity"

Miklós Ligeti, Legal Director of anti-corruption NGO Transparency International Magyar-ország, spoke to the Hungarian International Press Association on 10th November about government measures to satisfy the European Commission's demands on rule of law, public procurement and media freedom.

Miklós Ligeti, Legal Director of Transparency International Magyarország, has been with the anti-corruption NGO since November, 2012. He previously worked at various state institutions, including the National Institute of Criminology, the Ministry of Justice and Law Enforcement and Ministry of the Interior.

Hungary needs to comply with European Commission requests if it is to gain access to its full allocation of funds from the European Union, including those for recovery from the Covid crisis.

Below is the slightly edited transcript of his introductory remarks.

Miklós Ligeti: What we see at the moment unfolding is basically the biggest anti-corruption package perhaps since the fall of Communism in 1990.

I know that this sounds a bit exaggerated, but if we look back at Hungary's contemporary history, we don't see any government initiative that has been so spear-headed to tackle corruption.

Of course, anti-corruption measures are never done voluntarily, they are either coerced by voters in a good-case scenario - that's the best case, basically, because that means that voters, citizens, are up front against corruption - or economics. And in the case of Hungary [today], it is the European Commission. So, outside critics that compel the government to take steps against wrong doing.

Unfortunately, and this is more or less TI Hungary's assessement of the current package, we anticipate that in a year or two we will look back at what is happening now as a missed opportunity.

Steps are ... half-hearted

Of course, the steps taken are leading in a good direction, but are half-hearted, or not going far enough.

We have a package of 17 commitments or pledges presented by the Hungarian government. These include overarching ones like reinstating the rule of law, strengthening the autonomy and independence of the judiciary, putting corruption in the public procurement arena to an end, promoting freedom of information and lowering the threshold of accessibility of public-interest information.

Lack of consultation

But, the way this package has been implemented, the way regulations are designed and presented in parliament, are, well, to put it mildly, very questionable, or disquieting.

There has not been any public consultation whatsoever with any stakeholders in Hungary, neither with civil society, wth parliamentarians, like the opposition parties, with academia, journalists, citizens or other experts and stakeholders.

No-one [outside the government] has been given an opportunity to [influence] what has been presented to parliament.

Regulations, even big ones, omnibus [bills] are presented to parliament overnight and adopted, mostly in a fast-tracked manner, with no meaningful debate, with no possibility of presenting a motion to amend the regulations.

To give you a concrete example, two laws have been adopted recently to amend the legal framework [regulating] Freedom of Information.

Both have been depicted in a way that these serve to promote accessibility of information.

The first one removed the possibility [for the state authorities] to charge excessive costs onto the requester [of the information].

The second, which was adopted yesterday evening, introduces fast-based, expeditious court regulations, to have more speedy decisions in court, and anticipates, inaugurates a new portal website to have a compendium of public-interest information.

But in reality, these are miscarriages of law making, as there has not been any initiative put forward by the government to press back [ie restrict] state institutions, ministries, government offices or users of state assets [from employiing] practices which deny access to information.

So, the solution offered by the government comes to play a role only in case a Freedom of Information request is denied, if secrecy prevails.

But no-one cares how fast-tracked litigation in court is … the fact that you need to litigate indicates that information was not given in the first place. The government should make litigation unnecessary by opening up information automatically, without a court process.

New webportal - fails to bring Hungary up to standards of Slovakia and Czechia

About the new webportal; it's shiny, it may be an illustrative or an indicative sign of the government's intention to have at least a smokescreen, but in reality it doesn't [require] users of public money and managers of public information to upload their contracts - which are about spending public money.

We [in Hungary] are not even where Slovakia is. In Slovakia and Czechia, since 2010, it has been compulsory to upload, to make publicly accessible, all contracts which are paid from public money. If not, the invoice may not be serviced, the installment may not be made.

Is it needed anyway?

We have at the moment, in our existing regulations, a number of obligations that expect government stakeholders to upload either a contract, or vital information related to contracts.

These regulations are not respected.

The new ones, which are coming into force in a couple of days, will not [include] any coercive [or punitive] measures, like a ban on paying money on a contract, or sanctioning the CEO of state institutions or agencies that fail to comply with regulations.

So, in our very pessimistic assessment, this new regulation is going to remain just as unusable as the current one.

It will be very easy to circumvent.

The Integrity Authority ... will have limited ... er, authority!

I know that the most exciting part of this anti-corruption package is the new Integrity Authority, which is a joint idea of the Commission and the government, as far as we can conclude from the scattered parts of information that flow around, because the regulation does not reveal who the mastermind behind [this] was.

This is a very important step forward, [but] not as big a leap as we would have expected.

This new authority will not have standalone jurisdiction to take up corruption cases, or to jump in when other institutions like the government offices, police, tax administration, Competition Office, public procurement authority and others fail to take a step.

But at least it has a very strong voice that it can raise to say that other institutions are compelled to take action, which is an important element, which is currently lacking in the Hungarian set up.

Unfortunately, this new authority will not be able to indict on its own, to take cases before a justice, should the prosecution service fail to press charges - which is an often-voiced criticism to illustrate the prosecution service's failing performance, but at least it will have the opportunity to suspend public procurement processes if serious allegations or causes come up which would indicate that wrongdoing is about to occur.

It seemed to start off well ...

The selection of the leadership of this new office was a promising piece of the regulation, it was an open application process - unprecedented in the Hungarian arena.

Normally we have an appointment system, so the President of the Republic or Prime Minister decides on their own. It's a unilateral decision, with no public debate or public call for tenders or calls for applications.

This time, there was a public call for applications, and a distinct, select committee was charged to make the short-list of the candidates.

... but went downhill from there

However, there are several disturbing factors which undermine the reliability of this process: one of which was a procedural one, that is the call for applications went public prior to the adoption of the regulation.

... for example, the State Audit Office issued and published the scoring system based upon which the applications were measured against expectations [only after] the deadline for applications elapsed.

So, all the applicants submitted their applications without knowing what kind of criteria were to be used to measure [assess] their applications. This is against the law!

The law only foresaw as requirements from the applicants, their CVs, their unquestionable backgrounds, both professionally and morally, and an application, a kind of cover letter of maximum five pages.

TI Hungary made a critical [comment] about not having a scoring system, but we didn't intend to have it ex-post.

This made it possible – we don't know if this happened – but at least it enabled the State Audit Office President to formulate the criteria in the knowledge of who the applicants were.

Like, I have a couple of CVs, and I want a specific applicant to get a higher score, so I'll tailor the criteria, giving more prominence to factors and background materials in the CVs of my preferred applicants.

I don't know if this happened, but this was enabled.

FOLLOW UP – Mr Ligeti has since made contact to say that the government made new proposals to the anti-corruption package late on Tuesday, 15th November, some of which, if enacted, will, in his opinion, improve the package.

Presumably the European Commission, like Transparency International, was not exactly enamored with the government's package thus far, and has demanded more.

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