cohesion fund

Brussels’ suspension of payments for most of Hungary’s cohesion projects

It was on May 1 that I first reported that 444.hu, a new Internet website, published an article according to which sometime during the summer of 2012 the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there was discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers could be hired.

I expressed my doubt that the only reason for the suspension of billions of euros was discrimination against foreign engineers, although I do know that such discrimination within the EU is strictly forbidden. I suspected that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció, which had brought Lajos Simicska’s Közgép to the attention of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) , might have had something to do with the suspension of funds.

At that time the government offered only a couple of soothing assurances that all was well. One government official even insisted that the requisite membership in the Hungarian Society of Engineers was not really discriminatory because, after all, foreign engineers could join the society. The Hungarian government seemed to be quite sure of itself.

By now, however, the Orbán government seems to be in a total panic. There is still no resolution of the European Union’s suspension of payments for 13 of the 15 operative programs financed from Brussels, and in the worst case scenario Hungary might lose somewhere between two and four billion euros in EU grant money.

Let’s look at a few of the details. I should note here that I feel sorry for those journalists who don’t speak Hungarian and have to rely on information that is available on government sites because very often the English version of the press releases bears no resemblance even to the government doctored news in Hungarian. The August 12 press release on “Action plan to avoid losing EU funds” is a good example of this practice because it says not a word about the suspended funds. The Hungarian version published on the Office of the Prime Minister’s site is more informative.  János Lázár, the new head of the Nemzeti Fejlesztési Felügyelet (NFÜ, National Development Agency), announced at his press conference that “the European Union raised concerns with several large development programmes” and that  Lázár “has already asked European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn to assure completion of related negotiations at the earliest opportunity so that Hungary may utilise the maximum amount of funds available within the 2007-2013 programming period.” This, however, is still not the whole truth.

Lázár actually said that of the 20 billion euros allocated to Hungary for 2007 through 2013 there is a good possibility of losing about 2 billion euros if no agreement is reached before the end of the year. He didn’t dwell on the reasons for the suspension of funds but showed himself eager to “close the disputes between Hungary and the European Union.” The Hungarian government is ready to pay the fines that will most likely be forthcoming without turning to the European Court of Justice because of the urgency. He indicated that he would be happy if Hungary had to pay only 50-70 billion Hungarian forints.

János Lázár at his press conference / Photo Károly Árvai

János Lázár at his press conference / Photo Károly Árvai

This withholding of funds is only one of the problems. The other is that Hungary has only a few more months to utilize the remaining grant money, about 1 billion euros, that until now has not been allocated.

What happened? In 2010 the Orbán government completely reorganized NFÜ, which entailed firing 170 of the 210 employees of the agency. Brussels was apparently stunned. They may also have considered Viktor Orbán’s “reorganization” illegal because the Hungarian government was supposed to ask approval of these changes from the European Union. Because of the reorganization there was practically no work on projects at the agency. And not a single new project was launched. I might add here that today NFÜ has 600 employees and, as Lázár made clear at his press conference, there is no plan to reduce the size of the staff.

Meanwhile, just as I suspected back in May, concern was raised in Brussels over the alleged widespread corruption in the dispersion of funds, currently being investigated by the police. Most of the corruption that is under investigation happened when the Hungarian government tried to allocate money to small- and medium-size Hungarian businesses. Then there was the case when NFÜ wanted to decide the winner by lottery, which Brussels gravely objected to and eventually managed to stop. Sometimes grants were handed out without open competition. It is also known that there were occasions when firms with close ties to Fidesz offered assistance (naturally for a fee) to smaller companies without political connections. As far as I know, Közgép, the largest recipient of EU funds and according to some the most tainted, is not under investigation.

The question of the operative project funds was discussed yesterday at the cabinet meeting. As usual, not much can be learned from the press release except that the decision was made to create a new “working group” within NFÜ called “Tervezési Támogatási Munkaszervezet” (Planning and Assisting Working Organization) which is supposed have “functions of direction within the organization units.” Whatever that means.

According to MSZP’s Gábor Harangozó, although Lázár talked about 2 billion euros (500-600 billion forints) that needs to be approved by the European Commission and spent this year, in his opinion the real figure might be as high as 1,500-1,200 billion forints or about 4 billion euros. Right now no money is coming from Brussels, not even for projects that are already under construction. Moreover, it seems that the Hungarian government, which is supposed to be the guarantor of EU subsidies, doesn’t have the resources to pay the companies that are working on these projects.

Harangozó inquired in writing from Viktor Orbán about key details of the case. For example, how long has the Hungarian government known about the European Union’s objections to the government’s handling of the grants? When did Brussels turn off the spigot? Did the European Union complain about government corruption? MSZP also inquired about the situation from the director-general of the European Council.

Today the government, obviously feeling the pinch, reacted to Harangozó’s statements. They countered that Hungary “has lost billions of euros due only to the incompetence of the Gyurcsány-Bajnai governments.” According to the government press release, during Gordon Bajnai’s tenure as the head of NFÜ “76% of the money for development that was spent was not in accordance with rules and regulations.” In any case, one of the first announcements of Lázár after the cabinet meeting yesterday was that the Orbán government will re-examine all projects, including those long since finished, beginning with 2007.

In brief, a new attack on Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai is in the offing. If they follow their usual pattern they will darkly hint at all sorts of irregularities, fraud, and corruption. Then the police and the prosecutors will madly search for evidence while Magyar Nemzet reports on lurid details of the investigation that they gleaned from reliable sources. The whole circus will last at least until the elections. A tried and true campaign strategy.