Hundreds of thousands sign petition demanding Hungary join new EU prosecution body

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - An opposition politician has collected 680,000 signatures to push for Hungarian membership of a planned European Union prosecutor’s office (EPPO), a step rejected by Budapest’s eurosceptic nationalist government.

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium May 28, 2019. John Thys/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Due to be launched in 2020, the EPPO will be geared to investigating and pressing criminal charges in cases crossing borders of the EU, particularly fraud and corruption affecting the bloc’s budget. Twenty-two of the EU’s 28 member countries are participating in the EPPO so far.

“This (petition) action is a protest,” opposition politician Akos Hadhazy, a pro-EU liberal and anti-graft campaigner, said in a statement, thanking 26,000 activists who helped him collect the signatures, which have yet to be authenticated.

“Now it’s up to EU institutions to increase pressure on the Hungarian government, unless they want European taxpayers to finance a regime that openly works against the EU.”

Hungary has a population of about 10 million people. The signatures were gathered with the help of liberal and left-wing opposition parties.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have long refused to join EPPO, saying that prosecutorial powers should remain at the nation state level.

Hungary is one of six EU member countries outside EPPO as of now, alongside Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and Britain.

Orban, who has brought wide areas of public life under Fidesz control including the judiciary and media, has faced accusations of corruption but no high-profile investigations have been launched by chief public prosecutor Peter Polt, a political appointee taken from the ranks of Fidesz.

Polt’s authority would be undercut if Hungary joined EPPO. Polt, whose mandate expires later this year, was unavailable for immediate comment on the petition drive. An Orban spokesman did not immediately reply to an emailed request for comment.

Transparency International has for years described the situation in Hungary as “state capture”, in which Orban has allegedly used public institutions for the benefit of Fidesz and his business associates.

A string of businessmen close to Orban, including relatives, have risen to prominence since Fidesz won election in 2010, commanding as much as a quarter of all public procurement spending from EU and local funds.

Orban has denied corruption accusations and said that if anyone knows of illegalities they should report them to the authorities.

Hadhazy asserts that Hungarian prosecutors work to shield Orban, not to enforce the law - a shield the premier would lose if EU funding fraud cases could be prosecuted at a supra-national level. “Hungarians want no corruption... They support joining the (EPPO),” Hadhazy said.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Mark Heinrich