(Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban is seeking sweeping new powers to detect and punish what he sees as foreign influences in the European Union nation, the latest in a series of increasingly autocratic moves under his more than decade-long rule.
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The new Sovereignty Protection Agency will have ample budgetary and institutional support, including from the intelligence services, to identify purported foreign efforts to influence politics, according to a bill filed by Orban’s ruling party late Tuesday. The prime minister will pick the agency’s chief.
The bill, which is all but certain to be approved as Orban’s lawmakers wield a supermajority in the legislature, will impose a prison term of up to three years on politicians that accept foreign funds in elections. It will also allow authorities to shutter civil groups deemed to run afoul of the new regulations.
The legislation steps up Orban’s unprecedented consolidation of power since 2010, which has seen the nationalist firebrand extend his sway over all walks of life in Hungary, from politics, business, the courts and even education and culture.
The proposals attracted an immediate response from the European Commission, which has had a long-running legal battle with Hungary over the nation’s rule of law standards. The EU last year suspended more than $30 billion of Hungary’s funding on rule of law and graft concerns, money Orban is negotiating to unlock after a prolonged recession and budget crunch.
“Let me assure you that the commission is following developments closely and we are looking at all angles,” Christian Wigand, a spokesman for the Brussels-based EU institution said.
Budapest-based rights organization Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which has often been a target of the government’s attacks, said the draft law serves to silence critics of the regime rather than defend against foreign influences.
“Journalists, companies, churches, trade unions and municipal governments may also become the targets of the new agency,“ Helsinki said in a statement. “The language of the draft, just like bills crafted in recent years for similar reasons, is imprecise on purpose, full of vague concepts which can be broadly interpreted.“
The latest decision, along with Orban’s cozy relationships with authoritarian leaders from Moscow to Beijing, have made Hungary the black sheep of Europe. It also sparked tensions with Western allies in the EU and and NATO military alliance, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A staunch supporter of former US President Donald Trump, Orban told supporters last week that stricter rules would be needed to keep what he called “liberal hegemony” in check, which he blamed for a searing 2002 election defeat that forced him into opposition for eight years.
“Hungary isn’t the black sheep” of Europe, Orban said on Wednesday in Zurich at an event organized by Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. He blamed the EU for giving “strong leaders a negative connotation in Brussels.”
Since his political return, Orban has taken no chances, changing the Constitution over opposition objections, appointing loyalists to key formerly independent institutions, overhauling election rules and marshaling government resources for elections and political campaigns. He has won four straight landslide general elections that international monitors have concluded to be free, but not fair.
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Perhaps most importantly, Orban set up what’s considered Europe’s most powerful propaganda machine. It includes a politically-domesticated public media apparatus and a juggernaut of over 500 outlets spanning print to television and digital outlets which are under the sway of a ruling party-led foundation.
While officials from Orban’s ruling party earlier said the so-called sovereignty bill would also seek to target foreign funding of media, the bill doesn’t explicitly mention it. Some of Hungary’s dwindling number of independent outlets rely on funding from abroad to operate, while Orban’s cabinet and state companies channel vast funds to a pro-government media.
The legislation’s effect is set to be chilling nonetheless. Civil groups and those not explicitly named in the law are just beginning to assess just how broadly the new agency charged with keeping tabs on foreign influence will interpret its remit.
--With assistance from Alessandro Speciale and Stephanie Bodoni.
(Updates with EU response, background from fifth paragraph)
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