Hungary's anti-fraud body calls for extended powers to monitor EU funds

FILE PHOTO: European Union leaders summit in Brussels

By Gergely Szakacs

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's Integrity Authority, an anti-fraud body tasked with overseeing European Union funds, lacks the proper investigative authority to expose possible wrongdoing, its leader told Reuters, calling for an extension of the body's powers.

The body, created under EU pressure by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to unlock billions of euros worth of funds suspended over rule-of-law concerns, was launched in late 2022 to prevent, detect and correct the misuse of EU money.

International watchdogs say Orban has long channelled EU funds to businessmen close to his nationalist Fidesz party to entrench himself in power. Orban, in power since 2010, says Hungary is no more corrupt than others.

"The authority lacks investigative powers which are absolutely essential," its leader, Ferenc Biro, told Reuters. "Essentially we have formulated the draft in a way that only two laws need to be changed.

The biggest hurdle the authority was facing, Biro said, was that certain powers that are granted to it under the law were not transposed across the Hungarian legal system, which means fellow institutions do not need to abide by them.

"The leaders of these institutions wish to err on the safe side, as I would personally," he said. "So what they will do is that they will look at their own laws, and they will say that until this and this is specifically stated in my law, I will not be able to provide what you actually need."

The authority had submitted what Biro called an exhaustive list of requests to Hungary's Justice Ministry this month, but has not received any feedback yet. Press officials for the ministry did not immediately reply to emailed questions.

Biro said the establishment of the body played a key role in a decision to release some 10 billion euros of funds to Hungary in late 2023, a move some EU lawmakers are seeking to overturn.

Despite some progress in rolling back contested reforms to the judiciary, billions of EU funding remain suspended, with the veteran Orban deepening a standoff with the EU's top brass ahead of a June 6-9 European Parliament election.

Biro said the authority also needed powers not yet granted to it, such as being able to handle evidence, talking to witnesses, gaining access to criminal procedures and to data and information accumulated in criminal investigations, rights to handle electronic evidence and to obtain electronic evidence.

Absent the proper powers, "it is up to these bodies or individuals if they wish to cooperate or not," Biro said.

(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, Editing by William Maclean)