Sunday

21st Jan 2018

MEPs preparing to crack down on Orban

The European Parliament is preparing to call on member states to launch proceedings against Hungary’s illiberal rule in what would be a historic first for the EU.

Several EU officials told EUobserver on Tuesday (16 May) that they expected sufficient members of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) to abstain or to vote for a joint resolution to that effect for it to get through on Wednesday.

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The demand, tabled by the socialist, far-left, liberal and green parties, urges EU states to make use of the so-called Article 7 procedure.

The procedure is designed to rein in member states that violate EU values and could lead to the suspension of their EU Council voting rights.

It was created after a far-right party joined Austria’s government in the early 2000s, but has never been used.

The draft resolution says that "that the current situation in Hungary represents a clear risk of a serious breach” of European values stated in Article 2 of the treaties, such as rule of law, and that this "warrants the launch of the Article 7(1)” process.

The resolution would ask the parliament’s civil liberties committee to draw up a report on the situation and to call on member states to act according to Article 7.

The part of Article 7 to which the resolution refers does not foresee sanctions, such as the suspension of voting rights in the council of ministers.

It merely urges launching the “preventive arm” of Article 7, which calls on the Council to determine if there is a "clear risk of a serious breach" by the member state concerned.

Sanctions in Article 7 would only kick in if all EU countries agreed, but Poland, which is also under scrutiny by the European Commission, has already said it would veto any action against prime minister Viktor Orban’s government.

The strongly-worded draft resolution says that "developments in Hungary have led to a serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years”, and that "Hungary is a test for the EU to prove its capacity and willingness to react to threats and breaches of its own founding values by a member state”.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the parliament's EPP group, which is home to Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, has tabled his own resolution, which is critical on Hungary, but stays short of calling for Article 7.

Orban was in the European Parliament two weeks ago to defend his position. Except for Weber, all centre-right MEPs spoke highly critically of the Hungarian leader during the debate.

The rule-of-law concerns over Hungary have lingered for years, but the new developments come after the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Budapest over its attempt to stifle the Central European University (CEU).

The EU executive also called on Orban’s government not to move ahead with a planned law on NGOs which receive foreign funding that would label them “foreign groups”, suggesting they serve foreign interests.

Until last week, the EPP had been working with other groups on a joint resolution, but not all in the centre-right group could sign up to Article 7.

"I am not excluding Article 7, let me make that clear, but we have to be seen as dealing with each other fairly in procedural terms,” Weber told journalists in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Noting that the Commission’s letter to start the CEU procedure was “three weeks old", he said that "starting the procedure before we heard back from the Hungarian government is not the right way because it weakens our position".

The Hungarian government has one month to answer on the CEU law.

EPP divided

Despite the efforts of group leader Weber to keep his flock together, the group is split.

The EPP party recently warned Orban on the CEU and NGO law, but they did not include sanctions or timelines in their statements. Orban made no commitments to his party family.

Many centre-right MEPs are fed up with having to defend him.

MEPs were particularly appalled by a recent anti-EU “Let’s stop Brussels” campaign launched by Orban’s government, along with a questionnaire sent out to Hungarian voters which contained inaccuracies about EU proposals.

Many think that relying on the EU Commission is not enough, as the numerous infringement procedures launched against Hungary over the years have not significantly changed Orban’s politics.

But what to do about the EPP’s “enfant terrible” as Orban has been called by party chairman Joseph Daul, divides the group.

Some think, and Weber sticks to this line, that the Commission still needs to be in the lead on legal concerns over Hungary.

Some in the group are also worried about losing Fidesz’s 12 deputies, even though the EPP would remain the largest group if they went somewhere else.

There are worries over pushing Orban into the arms of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, arguing there is no need to strengthen the British Conservatives’ group ahead of Brexit.

Others point to Poland, whose ruling party is also a member of the ECR, and has dismissed the Commission’s rule of law concerns.

Officials say Weber might table an amendment to the draft joint resolution taking out the reference to Article 7, and urging a “structured dialogue” with Hungary following the example of the Commission’s procedure with Poland.

MEPs met Tuesday evening to discuss the issue, but sources say the differences within the group were very big.

“Many MEPs are concerned about the situation, and are losing patience in the group. But the question is what is the best method to tackle the issue, it remains a big question,” Polish MEP Roza Thun, from the EPP told EUobserver.

EPP group frustrated with Orban

Orban's ruling Fidesz party is getting too much to handle for the EPP group, as they are once again forced to defend the Hungarian premier's controversial actions.

Focus

Thousands protest Hungary university bill

Protesters reportedly called on Hungarian president Janos Ader to veto a bill that would close down Central European University in Budapest.

Soros-linked NGOs defy Orban purge

Hungarian NGOs funded by philanthropist George Soros have vowed to defy prime minister Viktor Orban’s plan to “sweep them out” of the country.

MEPs vote to start democracy probe on Hungary

The European Parliament took the first step towards launching the Article 7 procedure against Hungary for backsliding on democracy. The process might lead to sanctions, but Orban is not backing down.

Catalonia prepares for rule by Skype

The two biggest parties in Catalonia have vowed to put Puigdemont back in office despite Madrid's threat to maintain direct rule.

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