EU Court finds foreign-funded NGO law is against EU Law

A Hungarian law requiring NGOs with at least HUF 9 million in grants from abroad to register as a “foreign-funded organisation” has been ruled “stigmatizing, harmful and in breach of EU law” by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on 18th June 2020. The ruling has been hailed a “victory not only for Hungarian civil society organizations, who have campaigned relentlessly against the law since its adoption three years ago, but for European civil society as a whole,” by Márta Pardavi, co-chair of Trust grantee Hungarian Helsinki Committee. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee worked very closely with Trust grantee Hungarian Civil Liberties Union on the campaign against the law.

The ‘NGO Lex’ law, passed in 2017, required NGOs in Hungary receiving at least HUF 9 million (approximately €26,000) in grants from outside the country to register in a special registry and label themselves as “foreign-funded organisation” on their website and in publications. Hungarian Helsinki Committee pledged not to comply with the stigmatizing provisions in 2017, stating it would “[resist] these attacks” and “rely on the law and the public.” Tens of thousands of Hungarian citizens protested against the introduction of the law, which was heavily criticized by the Council of Europe and UN Commissioners for Human Rights, the government of the United States and many EU member states among others. Hundreds of NGOs from Hungary and around the world called for the law to be repealed. The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary, and after the Hungarian Government did not comply with these requests, it referred the matter to the CJEU in 2018.

In the CJEU’s judgment of this case, it found that Hungary’s 2017 law on the Transparency of Organisations Supported from Abroad unduly restricts freedom of movement and amounts to unjustified interference with fundamental rights, including respect for private life, protection of personal data and freedom of association, as well as citizens’ right to participate in public life. This illegitimate administrative burden and obstruction to NGO work violates EU law.

Pardavi has said on the ruling, “This decision is more than welcome! It strongly asserts that marginalising and intimidating NGOs that receive funding from abroad and obstructing their work is not accepted and is not lawful in the European Union […] It is a clear reaffirmation of the fundamental role played by civil society in a democracy, and curbing that with Russian-style laws is unlawful in the EU. We hope that this judgment will put an end to this alarming trend in Hungary.”

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