Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban faced a barrage of criticism even from his allies in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 11 during a debate on the Sargentini report, which condemns Hungary for breaches of democratic values.
MEPs held a more than a two-hour debate on the report criticising the state of the rule of law in Hungary, prepared by the EP's civil liberties committee. The document, authored by Green MEP Judith Sargentini, says there is a "clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values of the European Union", and calls for launching Article 7, which could suspend a member state's rights within the bloc.
Hungary's ruling Fidesz party's position within the European People's Party may hang in the balance if the EPP lawmakers approve the report.
It notes concerns related to the functioning of the constitutional and electoral system; the independence of the judiciary and of other institutions and the rights of judges; corruption and conflicts of interest; privacy and data protection; freedom of expression; academic freedom; freedom of religion; freedom of association; the right to equal treatment; the rights of persons belonging to minorities, including Roma and Jews, and protection against hateful statements against such minorities; the fundamental rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; and economic and social rights.
The report was approved by the parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties and Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in June. Its approval will require votes in support from more than two-thirds of voting MEPs and an absolute majority of all MEPs (at least 376).
In a seven-minute speech, Orban remained defiant, clinging to the official line of his government that pro-migration forces are threatening to blackmail Hungary to accept migrants.
"Hungary will not give in to blackmail. Hungary will defend its borders, stop illegal migration and defend its rights. Even from you, if necessary," he told lawmakers in Strasbourg.
Although only one of the 12 chapters of the Sargentini report deals with migration, Orban continuously referred to it as the main dividing line between Hungary and the European Union, which serves as the basis of the recent report. He referred repeatedly to the Hungarian people and Hungary as the defender of Christian culture.
Orban slammed at EP session
MEPs from the left and liberal fractions slammed Orban, saying the criticism was not against the Hungarian people but against his government, which over the years has undermined the independence of the judiciary, narrowed media diversity, denied refugee rights and waged a propaganda war against the Central European University (CEU), founded by the philanthropist George Soros.
Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament in Strasbourg: "Sadly, the Commission shares the concerns expressed in the report, in particular as regards fundamental rights, corruption, the treatment of Roma and the independence of the judiciary."
“I can promise, we won't be gentle,” he closed his speech.
Orban also got some serious blows from within the EPP, of which Orbán’s party, Fidesz, is a member. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP, signalled that his patience with the Hungarian government had been exhausted.
Nationalists and eurosceptic MEPs stood up behind Orban during the debate and former UK Independence Party (Ukip) leader Nigel Farage even appealed to Hungary to join the "Brexit club".
Orban expects vote to pass
Orban told reporters after the session that the outcome of Wednesday's vote whether to trigger Article 7 was “already decided”.
At a press conference, the Hungarian prime minister said the EPP is divided on migration, and it is trying to please the social democrats and the liberals on this issue so that they can form a coalition after next year's European parliamentary elections. His comments seem to be an acknowledgment of defeat as Weber signalled he would approve the Sargentini report on Wednesday.
It appeared almost certain that the threshold of two-thirds of MEPs supporting the triggering of the EU’s rule of law procedure would be met. EPP lawmakers were convened to a meeting on Tuesday night, where lawmakers were given the choice to vote according to their own convictions.
In response to a question, Orban said Fidesz would not quit the EPP at anyone's call. However, he added that the group was in need of reform if it is to be successful in next year's EP elections. Orban said the other members of the EPP would have to decide whether they want to work together with Hungary's ruling party.
“We're staying and we're going to fight," he said. He called for the EPP to ditch its "pro-migration position" and adopt a stance that supports border protection and taking firm action against illegal migrants.
Asked if he would be willing to compromise on new laws concerning the CEU and NGOs to win the support of the EPP, the prime minister said the issues in question had already been settled by the Hungarian people. Orban said he could not override the will of the Hungarian people, but even if he wanted to, such proposals would never pass in Hungary's parliament.
The question of the CEU may be the breaking point for Fidesz and Orban in the debate. Hungary has yet to ratify legislation that would allow the CEU to continue operating in Hungary after 2019. The university founded by Hungarian-born businessmen George Soros came under fire from the government for its liberal views. Orban has accused Soros of devising a plan to help the influx of illegal migrants to Europe.
The question of the university was on the agenda at Monday's meeting between David B. Cornstein, the US ambassador to Hungary and Orban. "This meeting was an important step in rebuilding trust and communication, and strengthening mutual trust between the leadership,” the embassy said.