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EC, Venice Commission concerned about Stop Soros

The recently adopted anti-migrant package of laws known under the name Stop Soros, in reference to Hungarian-born investor George Soros, continues to elicit strong criticism. Following harsh words from human rights organizations, international institutions expressed their concerns over the legislation.

EC Spokesman Christian Wigand (photo: European Commission).

At a press conference on Thursday, Christian Wigand, the European Commission (EC) spokesman for the rule of law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, responded to questions posed by Hungarian daily newspaper Népszava regarding the approval by the Hungarian Parliament of the package dubbed "Stop Soros."

The answer given by Wigand was unusually outspoken, compared to mostly very low-key EC comments on specific domestic affairs of the member states, the paper noted.

“It is not without concern that we are following these developments and these new proposals voted in the Hungarian Parliament yesterday,” said Wigand, adding that “we should not turn our back on our values and principles on which Europe is built.”

According to Népszava sources, both EC and European Parliament leaders share the view that the commission will launch an infringement procedure against Hungary with respect to the new legislation. Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the EC, was quoted by the paper as saying that “there may be problems” with the Stop Soros law.

The law was also sharply criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raʼad al-Hussein, who described it as “shameful and blatantly xenophobic,” as reported by Reuters Thursday.

“It continues and deepens the Hungarian government’s assault on civic space, threatening those who work on behalf of the most vulnerable and in defense of our highest human rights values,” he was quoted as saying.

Disproportionate measures

On Friday, an opinion adopted by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the advisory body composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, criticized a key provision on illegal migration of the Stop Soros legislation.

The Venice Commission acknowledged that many European countries criminalize assistance given to irregular migrants to aid their entry, stay or transit for financial gain. However, it added that the Hungarian provision goes far beyond what is allowed under Article 11 (on freedom of assembly) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as it unfairly criminalizes organizational activities not directly related to the facilitation of illegal migration, including “preparing or distributing informational materials” or “initiating asylum requests for migrants.”

Criminalizing such activities, said the Venice Commission, disrupts assistance to victims offered by NGOs, disproportionately restricting their rights as guaranteed under Article 11 and international law. Furthermore, it added, criminalizing advocacy and campaigning activities – under the new provision – constitutes illegitimate interference with the freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 10.

The Commission added that its opinion does not address other provisions that concern refugees more directly, including draft constitutional amendments. The opinion should not be seen as approving these amendments, it noted.

Furthermore, the Commission said that sanctions specified under the new law apply to criminal activities that are too broadly defined and disproportionate, as they include up to one year of imprisonment. The conviction of even one member of an NGO could lead to sanctions and even dissolution of the entire NGO, leading again to a violation of Article 11, according to the opinion.

The opinion compared Hungarian legislation with other, similar laws in European countries that criminalize the facilitation of illegal immigration. While laws in other countries include exemptions for humanitarian assistance, no such exemption exists under the Hungarian law, which would infringe international standards, the Commissionʼs legal experts said.

“Persons or NGOs working under a moral imperative to support individual cases, for example, or provide aid on the Hungarian border, risk prosecution – even if they act in good faith in line with international law for supporting asylum seekers or other forms of legal migrants, including cases of human trafficking victims,” the opinion noted.

The Venice Commission and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) expressed regret that the law was voted on two days before their opinion was adopted. The full press release, with further details, is available here.

OSF: government statement ‘manifestly false’

Also Friday, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) - the international grantmaking network founded by George Soros - released a statement saying that the Hungarian governmentʼs “propaganda” surrounding the law makes “false claims about George Soros’s views and positions on migration.”

The OSF referred to a statement from the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister in Budapest issued on Wednesday, June 20, which claimed the legislation was necessary because “the Soros network and the pro-immigration policy of Brussels are creating the threat of attempts to also swamp our country with migrants.” The OSF rejected this statement as “manifestly false.”

Instead, the OSF said, Soros has supported the idea of “a voluntary matching mechanism for relocating refugees” in countries across the European Union, in accordance with international legal obligations. It added that Soros had clearly indicated that “the EU cannot coerce member states to accept refugees they do not want, or refugees to go where they are not wanted.”

In response, the Hungarian Prime Ministerʼs Office said that “for the government Hungary comes first, and it will protect Hungarians even if the Venice Commission or the Soros network does not like that.”

The government termed it unacceptable that the Venice Commission talked about a lack of public consultation, arguing that Hungary was the only place in Europe where people were able to express their will about migration at a referendum and at a national consultation, and gave a clear authorization to the government and to parliament “to protect the country from immigration and to step up against organizations supporting illegal migration.”

The Office accused the Venice Commission of not behaving like a legal advisory body, stating that it “repeats the accusations well known from Brussels and the Soros network organizing migration and intends to exert political pressure on Hungary.”