BRUSSELS: European Union ministers grilled Hungary on Monday (Sep 16) over Prime Minister Viktor Orban's tightening of restrictions around free media, judges, academics, minorities and rights groups, which the bloc worries weakens democracy in the ex-communist country.
A year after the European Parliament said Orban's actions carried "a clear risk of a serious breach" of core EU values, ministers met in Brussels for a first formal hearing on Hungary.
"The EU is like a family in many regards. And in a family there has to be a common set of rules ... otherwise it cannot work. And rule of law is a foundation of that," said Austria's EU affairs minister Alexander Schallenberg.
Orban, in power since 2010, has also angered the EU with his harsh anti-immigration stance and crude campaigns against the bloc with anti-Semitic undertones.
But, widely seen as a Machiavellian and shrewd operator, he has mostly escaped punishment beyond being suspended from the bloc's biggest centre-right parliamentary group.
The bloc is, however, seeking to make its generous assistance to poorer members like Hungary and Poland - where Orban's fellow nationalists have also put media and judges under more direct state control - conditional on upholding the rule of law.
"When we speak of the independence of judges, the freedom of the media, when we speak of the protection of minorities, academic freedom ... it reminds us of our identity, of our values," French minister Amelie de Montchalin said.
With eurosceptic and nationalist politicians in several EU countries riding a wave of public discontent perpetuated by sluggish economies, anxiety over globalisation and immigration to Europe, the bloc is seeking to step up democratic defences.
Hungary, however, rejects the bloc's criticism.
"I expect them to prove that this procedure is not politically charged," Hungary's Justice Minister Judit Varga said on arriving to the hearing with her fellow EU ministers.
"We expect them to have a fair and evidence-based trial."