Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a major blow at the European Parliament, which voted on September 12 to launch an Article 7 procedure against Hungary for undermining EU values. MEPs voted 448 in favour and 197 against, with 48 abstentions in Strasbourg on the report that required a two-thirds majority to pass.
The report 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 the Article 7 procedure, which ultimately suspends a member state's voting rights, to be opened. This is the first time the EP has initiated such a procedure against a member state, an unprecedented move that will taint Orban's Fidesz party in Europe.
The report 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.
European People's Party divided
Orban received a rebuke even from fellow members of the European People's Party (EPP), whose support he had counted on. Of the 219 MEPs in the faction, 114 voted to back the document, which showed deep fractures within the conservative EPP, the biggest political group in the EU.
EPP faction leader, a contender for the post of European Commission president, Manfred Weber voted to trigger Article 7 against Hungary.
“I have always been in favour of building bridges and I want to continue to do so but yesterday I didn't see any readiness from the Hungarian PM to make a move towards his EU partners and address our concerns,” he said on Twitter.
The vote increases the pressure on leaders of the European People’s Party, the centre-right bloc that makes up the largest group in the parliament, to suspend or expel Fidesz from their ranks
French President Emmanuel Macron called the censure of Hungary as the first step to fight illiberalism. Macron has sought to take the lead in fighting nationalists including Orban and Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and he has called himself the “main opponent” of the two politicians.
Macron said the vote presented a choice of “values” for the Old Continent’s future.
However, Hungary has other supporters within the EU. Bringing the Article 7 procedure to the final stage would require the unanimous support of all other EU member states, which analysts say is unlikely. Poland has already indicated it would veto sanctions against Hungary.
The European Commission initiated similar proceedings against Warsaw in December and three months later the Hungarian parliament adopted a resolution supporting Warsaw in its fight against the bloc, saying the commission does not have “the right to meddle” in the domestic affairs of member states and that it was “unjustified” in initiating Article 7 proceedings.
Hungarian FM defiant and speaks of fraud
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto said the approval of the report was "petty revenge by pro-migration politicians". Szijjarto slammed the debate and the vote as a “show trial”, arguing that Sargentini had compiled it without ever arranging a delegation visit to Hungary.
He contended that the vote was "fraudulent" and insisted that under European agreements abstentions should have been counted as votes against adopting the report. (Even if those votes had been counted, the report received support from 64% of MEPs.) He added that the Hungarian government would study legal remedy options.
When asked if Fidesz would stay in the EPP, he said it has become clear that the EPP is seriously divided on the issue of migration. “We’re fighting to make our position the majority,” he said, adding that Fidesz wanted to steer the EPP back onto the Christian democratic path he said would preserve Europe’s identity.
Opposition parties hailed the EP's decision as a win for democracy that rejected the Hungarian government's illiberal policies. The message to government is clear: undermining and violating basic rights and values cannot go unpunished in Europe, Socialist MEP Istvan Ujhelyi said.
Losing voting rights in the European Council would ultimately hurt Hungary, rather than the government, but if the Article 7 procedure is launched it would be “Viktor Orbán’s responsibility alone”, Green opposition party LMP said.