Orban Plans Tougher NGO Law in Showdown With European Party Ally

(Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s new cabinet will toughen a planned legislative crack-down on non-governmental organizations, raising the stakes in a democracy debate that threatens the ruling party’s membership in a key European political group.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s cabinet will make its “Stop Soros” law -- named after the Hungarian-born U.S. investor and philanthropist George Soros -- tougher than a version advanced before Orban’s landslide election victory a month ago, his chief of staff Antal Rogan told reporters on Monday. The cabinet will seek to amend the constitution to make the legislation tougher.

Orban, a nationalist who declared the end of liberal democracy in the eastern European Union member state in 2014, is one of the biggest challengers to the bloc’s vision of a multi-cultural liberal democracy and is an inspiration to anti-immigrant populist movements across the world. The “Stop Soros” bill seeks to register, penalize and possibly bar people from Hungary who are deemed to be helping “illegal immigration.” NGOs have said its aim is to criminalize civil society.

The plan may threaten the ruling Fidesz party’s membership in the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s biggest bloc, with EPP chief Manfred Weber saying pursuing NGOs and the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest are "red lines" Orban shouldn’t cross, according to a May 10 interview in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. Rogan brushed off the threat, saying the EPP needed Fidesz in elections for European Parliament next year.

“The most important issue in the European Parliament elections will be immigration, and Fidesz and Viktor Orban are definitely considered the most credible on this,” Rogan said. “We’re here to help the EPP do well in the European elections.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has warned of a “civil war” of values in the EU, which is based on checks and balances on executive power and thriving civil society. Orban, who’s accumulated more power than any of his predecessors since communism, has shunned both by appointing allies to formerly independent institutions. In the past four years, he’s targeted NGOs, the media as well as the Soros-founded CEU, which is now in a legal limbo and may be forced to leave Hungary.

The EPP, which also includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic lawmakers, had until now sought to protect Orban from EU penalties. The EPP is also crucial for Orban as he seeks to prevent European Parliament from voting later this year that his policies constitute a “serious breach” of democratic values and warrant considering the suspension of Hungary’s EU voting rights.

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