The tragic consequences of EU funding on the environment in Hungary


To avoid further environmental damages due to the use of EU money, the European Commission should suspend funding to the Hungarian government.

Teaser Image Caption
Young greylag geese, drinking the freshwater of the Lake Fertö.

According to the relevant EU legislation, “The objectives of the ESI [European Structural and Investment] Funds shall be pursued in line with the principle of sustainable development and with the Union's promotion of the aim of preserving, protecting and improving the quality of the environment…”

The ecosystem of the biggest central European lake, Balaton, is under enormous pressure due to investments, mostly financed by EU money and companies which have gotten rich from EU money. According to Ferenc Jordán, former director of the Balaton Limnological Research Institute, “the real estate investors at Lake Balaton are rejoicing, but by the time their five-star hotels are built, the whole lake could be a stinking mire”. (The government responded to the Institute’s increasingly alarming reports on the state of the lake by firing its director and partly dismantling the Institute.) The second biggest natural lake, Fertő-tó (Lake Neusiedl), is being destroyed by construction projects carried out mainly by a company of Lőrinc Mészáros, a childhood friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who, during the last 11 years, has gone from a gas fitter in a small village to the richest person in Hungary – overwhelmingly from EU funded projects.

The construction projects at Fertő-tó are continuing at full speed despite protest by local citizens, environmental NGOs, and even the Austrian government and UNESCO. Lake Tata, a wetland site of international importance under the Ramsar Convention is threatened to be seriously damaged by a hotel construction planned by a subsidiary of Hell Energy Company. This company has received generous European Union funding and Hungarian public money. (This case sheds light also on a systemic problem of EU funding.)

Hotel construction at lake Balaton funded by the EU.
Hotel construction at lake Balaton funded by the EU.

The area covered by roads, buildings and other constructions increased by 31% between 2005 and 2019. Many of these investments have proven to be inefficient and seriously damaging to the environment. Quite often they have been funded from the national budget – making a farce of EU funding for the environment –and/or from EU money. These investments are characterised by all the ills described by George Monbiot. (To the 8 rules listed by Monbiot, I would add one more which was highlighted by László Domokos, President of the Hungarian State Audit Office, when speaking about the results of their examination of the use of EU funds by local governments: “When they implement an investment, they do not consider how much it will cost to maintain and operate it during the next 10 to 20 years. Regarding the whole period, it might be that the EU funds cause more harm than good.”). In Hungary, these ills are compounded also by the fact that one of the main suppliers of construction materials is the company of Viktor Orbán’s father, Győző Orbán (the profits of his company have soared since Orbán came to power again in 2010).

The insatiable appetite of Győző Orbán and other relatives and friends of Viktor Orbán who are in the construction business has led to another environmental tragedy: a large part of the area South-East of Budapest has experienced a vast disappearance of arable land and important natural sites as well as a substantial drop of the ground water level due to the immensurate mining of construction materials.

Such investments drain away not only money but also the labour force from energy efficiency investments in residential buildings: for ordinary citizens today, it is practically impossible to find a reliable specialist in this field, and even if they find one, the price offered is beyond their means more often than not. The low energy efficiency of buildings is one of the main causes of the terribly high air pollution, causing 13,000 premature deaths annually, and also of another huge health problem: according to Eurostat data, 26% of Hungarians live in a dwelling not comfortably cool during summer and nearly 20% live in a dwelling not comfortably warm during winter time. In many cases, this is literally a question of life and death: in recent years during heat waves in Hungary, the number of deaths increased on average by 15% – and the climate crisis forebodes an even more frightening future.

Another main cause of air pollution is waste burning by residents. Even in Budapest, this source is responsible for up to 5% of the concentration of particulate matter (PM10) in the air, and the toxicity of this 5% can be 100 times greater than that of the remaining 95%. Residential waste burning is due to a large extent to the lack of information. However, any information which might suggest the slightest criticism of the government – including information about the effects of environmental pollution – has not been covered by the overwhelming majority of Hungarian media for the last 10 years. (As far as media freedom is concerned, in 2021, Reporters Without Borders ranked Hungary 92nd among 180 countries; 15 years ago it ranked 10th.)

Dunántúli Napló was a very reliable, high quality regional newspaper. After Lőrinc Mészáros bought almost all regional newspapers, László Póré, the former editor-in-chief of Dunántúli Napló started to make his living as street vendor selling sausages.

Although residential waste burning is illegal, the environmental authorities are unable to deal with the problem as they have been seriously weakened and their relative independence has been eliminated. Evidently, the main reason for this is that they have posed an obstacle to spending EU money as quickly as possible, no matter the cost to society.

Not only ESI Funds, but also funding in the framework of the Common Agriculture Policy has greatly contributed to environmental degradation. One of the best indicators in this regard is the number of farmland birds. BirdlLife Hungary started to monitor the number of these birds in 1999. During the following 5 years this number practically did not change. However, since Hungary’s accession to the EU in 2004 this number decreased from year to year and by now it declined by nearly 40%!

To avoid further environmental damages due to the use of EU money, the European Commission must immediately suspend funding to the Hungarian government. Experts have already demonstrated years ago that there is ample legal ground for such a measure (for example, here, here, and here). Just recently, Members of the European Parliament presented a legal opinion which confirms this. Naturally, the suspension should be lifted as soon as the necessary steps are taken by the Hungarian government to ensure proper use of taxpayers’ money. Among others, civil society organisations have made detailed proposals for such steps.

According to the European Commission’s website, “the 27 EU Commissioners have the ultimate political responsibility for ensuring that EU funds are spent properly.” It is high time that the EU Commissioners live up to that responsibility. Otherwise, the environment of my country will be devastated completely.