Monday

22nd May 2017

MEPs vote to start democracy probe on Hungary

  • Viktor Orban's Fidesz party said that the resolution was the "left-wing's false slander" adopted under "pressure from migrant-friendly George Soros". (Photo: European Parliament)

In an unprecedented move, the European Parliament on Wednesday (17 May) called for the triggering of a check on the state of Hungary's democracy which could lead to the suspension of the country's EU voting rights.

A resolution proposed by the socialists, far-left parties, the greens and the liberals to trigger Article 7 of the EU treaty was passed with a majority of 393 votes against 221. Votes from MEPs of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) tilted the balance.

The EPP has been divided over how to deal with Hungary, ruled by one of the group's member parties, Fidesz, which is led by prime minister Vitkor Orban.

Votes show that 68 EPP MEPs cast their ballots in favour of starting the Article 7 procedure, which aims to determine whether there is a clear risk of breaching EU values and laws in a member state. Based on data from the European Parliament, 40 EPP members did not vote, out of a total of 64 abstentions.

It means that more EPP members voted for the resolution or abstained than the 98 who voted against it.

Three MEPs from the conservative European Conservatives and Reformist group (ECR) voted in favour of the resolution, highlighting the deep frustration in the parliament with Hungary.

The parliament has passed several resolutions on Hungary since Orban came into power in 2011, following the maverick premier's challenges to EU rules on the independence of the judiciary, free media, NGOs, academic freedom, and other issues.

However, up until now Fidesz had enjoyed the backing of its European political family, the EPP, and the resolutions remained toothless – with Orban arguing they were attacks on Hungary by the leftist, liberal European elite.

But many in the EPP group have grown increasingly annoyed with having to defend Orban who relentlessly attacks Brussels at home in Hungary.

Systematic threat

The strongly-worded resolution states that "the developments in Hungary have led to a serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years”.

It also says that these together could "represent an emerging systemic threat to the rule of law.”

The parliament's civil liberties committee (Libe) will draw up a report detailing its concerns about Hungary. This will become the basis for a vote in plenary on a “reasoned proposal,” which will call on EU countries to trigger the first phase of Article 7.

Using the parliament's reasoned proposal as a basis, a four fifths' majority of EU member states could determine that there is a "clear risk of a serious breach [of European values] by a member state”.

After that, EU countries will have to unanimously determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach. Sanctions would follow if the member states establish a breach – including the suspension of Hungary's voting rights in the Council of the EU.

However, Poland, which is also under EU scrutiny over concerns relating to alleged breaches of the rule of law, has already said it would veto such an assessment. This would put a halt to it, due to the need for a unanimous decision.

The European Commission has so far ruled out that there would be a systematic threat to the rule of law in Hungary.

University law

Recently the EU executive launched a probe into a new higher education law in Hungary over concerns that it targeted Central European University in Budapest, which was founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

The EU Commission also called on Orban's government to change a planned law on NGOs that would require groups receiving foreign funding to be labelled as “foreign-funded” groups.

In addition, on Wednesday the commission launched legal probes into Hungary's asylum laws concerning the detention of migrants, returning migrants and transit zones set up for asylum procedures along the country's southern border.

The parliament's resolution calls on Hungary to repeal the measures on higher education, on strict asylum laws, and to withdraw the proposed NGO bill.

It also asks the commission to strictly monitor the use of EU funds by the Hungarian government, particularly on asylum, migration, public communication, education, social inclusion, and economic development matters.

Orban’s government has recently launched a massive campaign called “Let’s stop Brussels!”, and sent out a questionnaire to voters with inaccurate claims about EU policy intentions.

“The European Parliament has expressed its concerns repeatedly and the buck stops here. Enough is enough. [Orban] has provoked Europe to the point where he has even lost the support of his own political family,” said liberal MEP Sophie In’t Veld after the vote in a statement.

"It is certainly a painful step, and we had truly hoped we could avoid this. But for seven years, Mr Orban has shown nothing but growing contempt of the union that his country is a member of,” she added.

“We have a duty to do something about the illiberal drift imposed by Orban in Hungary," Socialist group leader Gianni Pittella said after the vote. "The time for words and spin is over. For seven years, Orban has been eroding the foundations of democracy in Hungary and attacking the fundamental freedoms of Hungarian citizens.”

Orban unshaken

But Orban’s party, Fidesz, did not budge.

In a statement released after the vote, the party accused the EU parliament of attacking Hungary, saying the institution was inspired by leftist parties to “force illegal immigration” on the country.

Fidesz "rejects the new political attack on Hungary”, and said it will continue to reject illegal migration.

At the same time, Fidesz also welcomed that “despite the constant pressure from migrant-friendly George Soros, a significant number of MEPs did not support the left-wing’s false slander”.

Hungary is expected to hold general elections next spring, and there are concerns that a continued political battle with Brussels would only strengthen Orban’s voter base.

MEPs preparing to crack down on Orban

The EU assembly's largest group is split by its "enfant terrible", but enough MEPs are likely to abstain or vote Yes on the "Article 7" crackdown over Orban's illiberal rule.

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.

Opinion

The university so disliked by Orban

In a world with many new phrases like 'fake news' or 'alternative facts', Viktor Orban's government in Hungary is taking a more familiar approach to shutting down academic free expression in Hungary.

Macron and Merkel to 'reconstruct' the EU

The French and German leaders will present a common proposal to deepen and strengthen the EU and the eurozone. They say they are ready to change the EU treaties.

Schulz fails to beat Merkel in German home state

Former EU parliament leader, Martin Schulz, says the defeat of his social-democrats in North Rhine-Westphalia is "difficult". The elections showed that a "Schulz effect" does not (yet) exist.

Austria heading for snap elections

Foreign minister Kurz has taken leadership of the conservative party in what could lead to an alliance with the far-right.

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