EU: Hungary must answer more questions to get aid

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By DON MELVIN, Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union said Wednesday that Hungary has more questions to answer about its respect for democratic rights and freedoms before talks can begin on a possible financial assistance package.

In January, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, launched legal challenges against the former Soviet-bloc country, which many fear may be slipping back toward authoritarianism. The Commission said then that the constitution that came into force Jan. 1 undermined the independence of the national central bank and the judiciary and did not respect data privacy principles.

Hungary has replied to the Commission in writing, but Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said Wednesday that the country's assurances were not sufficient.

"The measures taken by Hungary don't answer all of the questions raised," she said.

While the legal challenge is one tool at the Commission's disposal, an even more powerful lever may be Hungary's need for financial help. Last year, the country requested financial assistance from the EU and the International Monetary Fund after its funding costs rose.

But neither institution has so far committed to giving aid. And Ahrenkilde Hansen said Wednesday that the conditions for beginning discussions on the topic have not yet been met.

Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, said it was essential that Hungarian authorities address the issues swiftly.

"Hungary has responded to some of the Commission's legal concerns, but we still have serious questions regarding potential violations of EU law as regards the anticipated compulsory retirement of 274 judges and public prosecutors in Hungary and the independence of the Hungarian data protection authority," Reding said.

In a statement, the Commission said that Hungary's promises to change its laws regarding the independence of the country's central bank had gone some way toward easing concerns, but more evidence was needed that the legislation would indeed be changed in an acceptable way.

Though the Commission statement appeared to be taking the outstanding issues quite seriously, Hungary welcomed the development.

"The government is delighted to be informed that the European Commission has accepted the Hungarian responses in 90 percent of the cases it initiated, so these cases can be closed, " it said in a statement. "Regarding the questions which remain open, the government is ready for further consultations with the European Commission."

The Commission is sending four official communications to Hungary and "due to the urgency of the matter." It has set a one-month deadline for the national authorities to respond instead of the normal two.

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Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report. Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin

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