The European Commission has allocated € 259 million from the Border Management and Visa Instrument for projects on migration and border security amid willingness to unblock funding to Poland after the appointment of Donald Tusk as a prime minister. Finland reopens parts of its border with Russia following concerns over violations of asylum seekers’ rights while other Baltic countries consider tightening their borders. The European Commission’s decision to unblock € 10.2 billion of funding for Hungary has been criticised as a “grave mistake” amid worries over rule of law and human rights.

In November 2023, the European Commission (EC) allocated € 259 million from the Border Management and Visa Instrument (BMVI) for projects aimed at “reinforcing migration management and security at the EU’s external borders”. According to the EC’s press release, € 141 million will be used to subsidise the installation of optical fibre and software in various European countries, including Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Hungary, in order to “improve the exchange and processing of data between border posts and command centres”. It added that the funding would also be used for the installation of electronic surveillance equipment at border posts in Bulgaria, Latvia and Lithuania, and the deployment of mobile detection equipment in Bulgaria, Greece and Lithuania. Additionally, under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), funding will also be used to “strengthen reception facilities at the borders, with the renovation of existing reception centres in Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland”.

On the eve of the European Council summit that is taking place 14-15 December in Brussels to discuss new aid to Ukraine and the opening of accession negotiations for Kyiv, which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has ferociously opposed, the EC agreed to release € 10.2 billion of funding for Hungary’s cohesion policy, maritime and fisheries, and home affairs programmes after a “thorough assessment” concluding that “Hungary has taken the measures it committed to take” to ensure judicial independence. Meanwhile, € 21 billion of funding for Hungary remains blocked amid concerns over the rule of law and respect for human rights in the country. Regarding migration funding, ECRE’s initial analysis of the EC decisions related to the agreement, indicates that Hungary’s share of the funding available under both the BMVI and the Internal Security Fund will be released whereas the AMIF funding remains blocked due to Hungary’s deficiencies on the right to asylum, procedures and safeguards concerning return and the principle of non-refoulement. Systematic violence against people on the move at the Hungarian border has been reported for many years by civil society, journalists and academia. As already reported by ECRE in December 2022, a Lighthouse investigation revealed that Hungary’s cruel practices of violence at the border and equipment had been partially financed through the use of EU funding. Although the decision to unblock the funding had been expected, “it quickly sparked outrage with EU lawmakers accusing the commission of giving in to Hungary’s blackmail.” The “blackmail” in question relates to Hungary’s ability to veto any agreement on additional macroeconomic support for Ukraine and the possible opening of EU accession negotiations for the country, both of which are being discussed at the summit.

Prior to the decision, the leaders of the European Parliament’s (EP) four main political groups sent a letter to EC President Ursula Von der Leyen in which they urged her to maintain the funding freeze on the grounds that the “horizontal enabling conditions have not been fulfilled.” Their position was echoed by various individual MEPs and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Erika Farkas, a legal officer at ECRE member organisation the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), wrote in an op-ed: “Hungary is still playing tricks to avoid compliance, especially when it comes to reforms that could have painful consequences to the ruling majority”. The first trick is “legal amendment, but no actual change” while the second trick is “say one thing, do another”, and the third trick is “compliance on paper only”, she explained. Green MEP, Tineke Strik described the EC’s decision to unfreeze Hungary’s funding as a “grave mistake by Commission president Von der Leyen”, adding “Giving in to Orbán’s Kremlin-agenda and blackmail means compromising European values and the security of the EU and Ukraine.” Meanwhile, on 30 November, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the Hungarian state had violated the human rights of an Iranian man and his nine-year-old son when they unlawfully detained them in the Röszke transit zone for 17 months between December 2018 and May 2020. According to HHC representing the victims, the peculiarity of this latest case was that “the father and his son were detained in the transit zone (in two separate sectors of the transit zone) in two different procedures, one in relation to their claim for asylum, and another one in relation to their expulsion, on various legal grounds (during the latter procedure, if possible, in even poorer conditions).” The ECtHR awarded the man and his son € 17,500 in just satisfaction.

The EC has also stated its willingness to unblock € 111 million in funding that has been earmarked for Poland but that has been suspended due to concerns about the rule of law situation in the country. On 13 December, the Commissioner for Budget and Administration, Johannes Hahn, said “We’re not talking about an immediate transfer of billions – it’s more about de-blocking of funds. We have to see how to proceed.” It was the first official comment from the EC about the prospects of Poland accessing EU funding since the appointment of Donald Tusk as prime minister on 12 December after leading an elections campaign employing anti-migrant rhetoric. Prime Minister Tusk’s government, from whom the EC has “a lot of expectation” will need to enact a series of reforms before the funding can be released, a task that may be rendered more complicated by the need for the approval of Polish President Andrzej Duda who has indicated that he would not support them. While the EC is considering releasing funds to the Polish authorities, concerns about ongoing pushbacks and violence against migrants attempting to cross the Belarus-Poland border continue. The prosecutor’s office published a statement concerning the lifeless body of a 30-year-old man found on a forest raid in April 2021 after a police intervention. According to the statement, the man died as a result of injuries suffered during the arrest. ECRE member organisation the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation (HHRF) stated that it has monitored numerous cases of violence by uniformed services, including handcuffing people to a radiator at a police station and beating or kicking detained people on the move throughout Poland. The HHRF also stressed that “torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention should never take place in a democratic society and that nothing justifies resorting to such measures”.

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