EU cracks as Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland show Brussels how its done: Helpless!

Hungary spokesman says ‘parental issues don’t belong in EU’

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Last week, Hungary formally lost access to over €200million (£170,947) in grants from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein after growing concerns about the country’s democratic backsliding. It came after Budapest was unable to reach a deal with the three countries — the only non-EU members of the European Economic Area (EEA) — over how the funds would be disbursed. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein fund programmes in 15 countries to help reduce social and economic disparities in Europe.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been widely accused of hindering freedom of the press and expression, as well as undermining Hungary’s democratic institutions and imposing restrictions on civilian society.

His government has most recently been the target of strong international criticism for a new law this summer that forbids all distribution of information about sexual minorities and the LGBQ+ community.

While the three EEA countries have been swift to act, the EU is still at a standstill as they do not know how to fund programmes for Hungarian citizens while ensuring those distributing the money are sufficiently independent of political pressures.

In a recent report, the head of Oxford-based think-tank Euro Intelligence Wolfgang Munchau insisted how “the helpless” EU should follow the example of Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.

He wrote: “The European Commission has taken steps in the same direction in recent weeks, launching an infringement procedure over a recent anti-LGBTQI bill.

“This prompted Orbán to announce he would hold a referendum on the law, after accusing Brussels of holding up approval of Hungary’s national recovery plan – and billions of EU money – over the law.

“The Commission has said delays are owing to concerns over lack of anti-graft measures in place in Hungary.

“We are not sure how long this delay will go on, but we think this proactive approach will prove much more effective than simply responding to the inevitable.”

Under a weak compromise negotiated during last year’s budget deadlock, a rule of law procedure can only be brought to protect the EU’s financial interests.

This means the rule of law mechanism cannot be used for cases of human rights violations.

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Mr Munchau concluded: “A lack of anti-graft measures for EU money does put its financial interests at risk, and the EEA’s move is interesting because it raises the possibility that financial interests can include funding to civil society groups that are fighting for human rights. A crackdown on these organisations could be argued to be damaging those interests.

“But this does not mean the mechanism would offer any sort of a speedy resolution. The Court of Justice must give its judgment on any such procedure, and it is not exactly known for moving quickly. By acting before a problem occurs, the EEA has set a good example. The EU should follow suit and stick to its guns.”

According to historian Hjörtur J. Guðmundssonthe, Iceland and Norway “increasingly want to leave” their arrangements with the EU.

Membership of the EEA allows full access to the single market but requires the country to accept EU rules such as free movement.

In 2018, Iceland’s Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson launched a blistering attack against the bloc as he claimed the EU was starting to view the Nordic country’s independence as a “nuisance.”

Mr Benediktsson said Brussels’ desire for “deeper integration” was making it more difficult for Iceland to have special exemptions in areas that risked harming national interests.

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Mr Benediktsson told The Telegraph that there was growing concern in Reykjavik that the EU “did not understand” why Iceland was so reluctant to be swept up into the European project.

He said: “They are almost showing disregard, it’s like a nuisance to them.

“‘When will we get rid of that?’

“‘Why can’t everybody just become full members?’

“I can understand that from a political standpoint but the fact of the matter is that if you have an international agreement you should respect it, and that’s that.”

His comments came after the Icelandic Parliament vowed to reexamine the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement, amid mounting concerns that Brussels was exerting too much influence over their domestic affairs.

Norway also seems to be incredibly divided on the issue.

In 2020, the Centre Party, the Nordic country’s most EU-unfriendly mainstream party, came out in favour of a new, looser deal.

Sigbjørn Gjelsvik, a Centre Party lawmaker and spokesperson on EU relations said: “The deal we have now is a bad one.

“We need to discuss the alternatives.”

Erik O. Eriksen, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, wrote: “Norwegians voted against joining the EU in 1994; the argument that they should not be governed by laws decided elsewhere won the day.

“Paradoxically, however, the ‘no’ vote has ended up undermining Norwegian sovereignty.”

In a 2018 report for Brexit Central, Mr Guðmundsson added: “Meanwhile opinion polls in Norway have suggested that more Norwegian people would like to replace the EEA Agreement with a comprehensive free trade agreement than those who would like to remain in the EEA.

“The Norwegians have also had opinion polls showing far more people in favour of holding a referendum on Norway’s EEA membership than those against it.”

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