30th Nov 2023

MEPs voice 'serious concern' on Hungary's democracy

  • Orban (l) with EU commission president Barroso - Hungary is due to reply to Brussels' concerns on Friday (Photo:

The European Parliament has passed a resolution tabled by left-wing and liberal deputies urging Hungary to respect EU laws and values or risk having the EU assembly start a formal investigation into serious breaches of EU values, a never-before-used instrument in the EU treaty.

The resolution, passed on Thursday (16 February) with 315 votes in favour, 263 against and 49 abstentions, spoke of the "serious concern" over democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Hungary.

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It calls on the civil liberties committee in the parliament to draw up a report looking into an array of laws that have been draw up to implement the country's new constitution, the first since Communist-era times and in place since the beginning of the year.

Based on this report, says the resolution, the parliament will then decide whether to activate Article 7 of the EU treaty, used when there is a "clear risk of a serious breach" of EU values, with the ultimate sanction being loss of voting power for the member state.

"This is a vote in defence of the Hungarian citizens, and those across the EU that face similar threats to their liberty and checks and balances of the democratic system," said Belgian Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, one of the main advocates of parliament's tough stance on Hungary.

Centre-right deputies reacted angrily to the move, particularly as it comes one day before Hungary is due to formally reply to concerns raised by the European Commission on three aspects of its laws.

Kinga Gal, a Hungarian centre-right deputy suggests it is politically motivated: "The adoption of this resolution neglects the fact that there is an ongoing dialogue between the Hungarian government and the European Commission.

"Why can they not wait until the end of this process? Because it is not the facts that really matter for them, but the condemnation of the Hungarian EPP government."

Contacts in the parliament suggested the Liberals and Greens were the most keen on getting the resolution out, with Verhofstadt hoping the issue will be raised at the EU leaders summit at the beginning of March.

Thursday's move is the latest twist in the long-running Budapest-Brussels that started with Prime Minister Viktor Orban's rewriting of the country's constitution on the back of his party's two thirds win in a parliamentary election in 2010.

Orban argues it is a completion of the country's move away from democracy, while also allowing him to undertake needed economic reforms.

But the constitution and its implementing laws have attracted widespread global criticism for threatening the essentials of democracy. Brussels ordered a change to the country's media law last year and then, following a subsequent tussle with Budapest, in January began infringement procedures on laws concerning the retirement ages of judges, independence of the central bank and the independence of the data protection agency.

Hungary has indicated it will reply by the Friday (17 February) deadline. Orban himself, while not backing down, has in recent days acknowledged the quick pace of law-making to support the constitution, with reams of cardinal laws making their way through parliament last year.

The tricky politics around Article 7

Member states have been keeping an eye on the process with interest. According to one diplomat, the issue has not been extensively discussed at the council level because capitals are keen to keep the process as depoliticised as possible.

The most actively critical countries have been Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg but even among these three there are differences. According to a source, it took them "about ten days" to negotiate a three-line letter on Hungary ahead of a recent general affairs council.

The article can also be triggered by one third of member states or the European Commission. But there is a reluctance to use such a heavy artillery too easily for risk of devaluing it.

"If we use Article 7 at this stage then we don't have much in our arsenal if something goes badly wrong in a member state," noted one diplomat.

Meanwhile, there is also an element of not throwing stones when one's own structure may be made of glass. The independence of data protection authorities is an issue for several member states. The European Commission has in the past taken Germany to court on just this issue.

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