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19th Jun 2021

Top EU court rejects Hungary's challenge to sanctions probe

  • Prime minister Viktor Orbán and former Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini in 2018 at a parliamentary debate on Hungary (Photo: European Parliament)

Hungary has lost a legal challenge against a European Parliament vote that opened the way for the Article 7 sanctions probe into the erosion of democratic standards under prime minister Viktor Orbán's rule in the country.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Thursday (3 June) ruled that the parliament vote followed the correct procedure when it did not take into account the abstentions in the total tally.

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In an unprecedented move, the parliament in 2018 voted (with 448 MEPs in favour, 197 against and with 48 abstentions) to launch the sanctions procedure.

The triggering needed a two-thirds majority in parliament, and Hungary argued that if abstentions had been counted in the total number, the threshold would not have been met.

The ECJ said that "when calculating the votes cast when that resolution was adopted, the parliament was right to exclude the taking into account of abstentions."

MEPs' "abstentions do not have to be counted in order to determine whether the majority of two-thirds of the votes cast has been reached," it added.

The parliament's report at that time - which was put together by former Dutch Green MEP Judith Sagentini - said that Hungary posed "a clear risk of a serious breach" of principles including the rule of law.

The Article 7 process has been ongoing in the council of member states without a clear end. The next discussion on the issue will take place among ministers on 22 June - the first since December 2019.

Hungary's justice minister Judit Varga called Thursday's court ruling "completely unacceptable and shocking", adding that the vote was contrary to EU treaties, and also to the parliament's own rules of procedure

"As we all know, abstention means a tacit disagreement. It is the conscious political will of MEPs and not their unwillingness to vote. Otherwise, they wouldn't even go to the polls," she wrote in a Facebook post.

Varga added that the ruling "does not in any way confirm the contents of the Sargentini report", which she said had been refuted by the Hungarian government.

"Hungary is ready for a dialogue on issues related to rule of law. However, we will keep rejecting politically-motivated witch hunts," she added.

Poland is also under the same procedure - but that was launched by the EU Commission.

Budapest and Warsaw have mutually vowed to shield each other from any moves against them through the Article 7 procedure, which could suspend their voting rights in the bloc.

French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, who took over the file from Sargentini, said the court's ruling proves that the parliament "was right to overcome" the commission's inaction over Hungary.

"This ruling clearly sets out that the commission is not the only 'guardian of the treaties' and when there are serious threats to European values, the parliament can and must act. More than ever, the council urgently needs to take up its responsibility to protect the rule of law and take action on Hungary," she said in a statement.

"The state of the rule of law in Hungary is worsening by the day. The Fidesz government's conscious strategy to dismantle democracy and undermine fundamental rights affects all citizens and has started spreading to other EU member states," Delbos-Corfield added.

Poland and Hungary have been in locked in a battle with EU institutions for several yeaers over their democratic backsliding.

The two countries last year threatened to veto the EU budget and the bloc's recovery fund over proposals to link some EU funds to rule-of-law conditions, which they said was "political blackmail".

The new rules on such conditionality have been agreed by member states' representatives and the parliament, but the Warsaw and Budapest governments have also challenged this legislation at the EU's top court.

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