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20th Sep 2020

Orban's allies want concessions ahead of critical vote

  • Hungary's Viktor Orban arrives at the European Parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg (Photo: European Parliament)

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's European allies on Tuesday (11 September) demanded that he makes last-minute concessions on measures curbing academic freedom and civil society - in order to avoid triggering of the EU's sanction procedure.

MEPs in Strasbourg held an unprecedented debate on whether to launch the so-called 'Article 7' procedure against Hungary for violating the EU's rules and values.

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The move needs a two-thirds majority of MEPs. The vote will take place on Wednesday - and the required majority largely hinges on how members of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) vote.

The EPP group leader, Germany's Manfred Weber - who last week announced his bid to become the next president of the European Commission - told Orban in the debate that Hungary needs to allow the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), founded by US billionaire George Soros and a centre for liberal thinking, to continue to function.

Weber also added that a well-functioning civil society must be secured in Hungary. Orban sees Soros as a nemesis and accuses him of variously wanting to transport a million migrants into Europe, and destroy Christian values.

Recent legislation by the Orban government has threatened the continued existence of CEU in Budapest, plus new rules on NGOs curb critical civil society groups in Hungary. Both sets of measures are under currently scrutiny by the European Commission.

The EPP, the EP's largest political group, has been previously criticised for protecting Orban's Fidesz party - despite years of concern over Orban's actions dismantling checks on his power.

The EPP will decide on Tuesday evening on how they will vote on Wednesday, but Weber also had a warning for Orban, who has been running hate campaigns against Muslim migrants.

"One thing must be clear - if we say generally that you have to be afraid about Muslims, and attack a religion, then we do the job of jihadis, who want to create a clash in our societies," the German MEP said.

"We have invented human rights and not Christian rights on this continent," he added, citing the separation of church and power.

A new 26-page report put together by Green MEP Judith Sargentini calls on member states to investigate Hungary's democracy.

A later stage of the procedure could result in suspending the voting rights of Hungary in the EU - but that is unlikely to happen as Poland and other countries are likely to veto such move.

Sargentini told MEPs that Orban's government has replaced independent judges with closer ties to the state, made life for NGOs "miserable", and found that "individuals in the government enriched themselves from EU taxpayers money".

"Will you let a member state violate the values the EU has been built on without consequences?" she asked MEPs.

Sargentini was interrupted by the late arrival of prime minister Orban to the chamber in Strasbourg.

Orban's defence

The Hungarian prime minister then accused the European Parliament of attempting to punish Hungary for its anti-migration stance.

He said the EP was condemning not his government, but Hungarian nation itself.

"I know you have already made up your mind, I know the majority will adopt the report, my speech won't change your opinion," he told MEPs.

"You are going to denounce Hungary that has been a member of Christian European nations for a thousand years," Orban said.

Orban called the report an "insult" to Hungary, that uses double standards and abuses its power. He said there are dozens of factual mistakes in Sargentini's report and that it lists issues that the Hungarian government has already settled with the commission.

"Hungary will be condemned because the country decided that it will not be a country of migrants," he said, vowing not to give into what he called blackmail.

"We stand ready for the election next May, when we will restitute democracy to European politics," Orban warned, as populist, nativist forces sympathetic with his tough line on immigration are expected to surge.

Orban recently pit himself and Italy's far-right foreign minister Matteo Salvini against French president Emmanuel Macron, as the main protagonist forces in next May's election.

During the debate, another populist, British MEP Nigel Farage commended Orban for taking on Soros - and urged him to leave the EU. "Come and join the Brexit club, you'll love it," Farage said.

EPP dilemma

Elmar Brok, an MEP with German chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats confirmed the EPP's demand that Orban moves on the CEU and NGO issues.

"Our group leader has said that there are only two points which have to do with rule of law and democracy question and the right of NGOs. The rest is political opinions. Here we would like to see some movement from him," Brok said.

He denied that Orban is pulling the centre-right group further to the right of the political spectrum, as mainstream parties across Europe struggle with the rise of populism.

Sargentini's report argues that the dismantling of democracy in Hungary goes deeper than curbing freedom of academia and the civil society, but Brok said other issues listed in the report have nothing to do with rule of law and democracy.

Last April, the EPP already warned Orban over the CEU, but his government did not adhere to their demands.

"You might not like certain policies, but you have to divide them from when it comes to the question of rule of law and democracy," Brok added - but declined to say how he would vote.

German MEP Daniel Caspary told EUobserver he would like to see a clear commitment by Orban "in the direction of rule of law, anti-corruption, the CEU and the NGO law".

"It would help us," he said.

The MEP, from Merkel's CDU party, criticised the Sargentini report, saying it mixed up Article 7 issues and national decisions, and included issues that have already been closed by the EU commission under earlier probes.

Caspary also pointed to the liberal and socialist group in the EP, saying they have respectively protected the Czech Andrej Babis' populist party and the Romania's governing Social Democrats, which have been rolling back tough anti-corruption efforts.

Caspary said that - contrary to the liberals and socialists - the EPP has openly discussed its disputes with Orban.

"Yes, Orban does several things we don't like, but he regularly comes to the EP, to the group, and in the end he accepts EU law," he said.

Caspary added that triggering the first phase of Article 7 sanctions procedure "is not punishing" Hungary, but is the start of an "objective assessment" by the member states.

"Article 7 should not be a political issue," he said, adding that what he saw as the politicised Sargentini report "doesn't help us".

He also said that expulsion of Orban's Fidesz party should be on the EPP agenda before the Article 7 procedure's final outcome is known.

Caspary said he was not done with the final assessment on the issue, and that the German delegation will discuss it more on Wednesday morning.

Hungary offers cautious support to Bannon project

Populist forces in Hungary and Italy are gearing up ahead of the European parliament elections, as Donald Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, embarks on a Eurosceptic populist movement. Italy's Salvini has joined with Bannon - Hungary appears more cautious.

Hungary vote exposes EU rift on populism

MEPs will vote next week on whether to urge member states to investigate Hungary on EU values. Budapest calls it "liberal fundamentalism", with the EPP in a difficult position.

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