Thursday

20th Sep 2018

EP triggers sanctions procedure, Hungary calls 'fraud'

  • Hungarian premier Viktor Orban and Judith Sargentini meet face-to-face at the European parliament debate on Tuesday (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament on Wednesday (12 September) voted overwhelmingly to trigger a sanctions procedure against Hungary over prime minister Viktor Orban's challenge to EU rules and values on media freedom, migration and rule of law dating back several years.

In the unprecedented move, 448 MEPs voted in favour of launching the so-called 'Article 7' procedure, 197 against and with 48 abstentions, the EP referred Hungary to the other member states to check the health of the country's democracy.

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The same procedure is already underway against Poland, this time triggered by the European Commission.

With the vote, the EP endorsed the report of Green MEP Judith Sargentini, which said recent developments in Hungary represent a systematic threat to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in the country and constitute a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values.

After the vote, MEPs welcomed the adoption of the report and Sargentini with a standing ovation. This was the second time the EP has compiled a report on Hungary's backsliding on democracy. The first in 2013, however, did not call for the launch of the sanctions procedure.

Now it is up to the Austrian presidency of the EU to launch the procedure of the council of EU countries to examine whether Hungary's government does breach EU rules and values.

Peter Launsky, spokesperson for the Austrian government tweeted that the council "will deal with" the issue - without giving a timeline.

Sargentini said she expected to be invited by the council to present her report and wants European parliament president Antonio Tajani to help her with that.

Fidesz MEP Jozsef Szajer, a close advisor to Orban, called the EP's decision the "petty revenge" of pro-immigration politicians.

"Hungary and the Hungarian people are being condemned because they proved that migration can be stopped and there is no need for migration," Szajer said.

He challenged the legality of the vote saying that not counting abstentions as votes cast is irregular, and they will challenge the vote with the EP's leadership.

"The Sargentini report was not adopted today, because only by violating voting rules was it possible to reach the necessary two-thirds majority laid out in the treaty," Szajer said, arguing that if they had included abstentions, the two-thirds majority would not have been achieved.

"This is an invalid report, that has no legal consequence," Szajer said.

Zoltan Kovacs, spokesperson for the Hungarian government called the vote a "fraud".

The MEP said Hungary was going to challenge the vote in the parliament - an issue that could end up at the EU's top court.

Last week the EP leadership asked the parliament's legal service to clarify on whether abstentions should be counted. The legal service told parliamentary groups earlier this week that abstentions don't count as votes cast based on the treaty.

Sarghentini told journalists she relied on the parliament's legal service assessment and did not have a preference with regards to abstentions. But she added that she found the Hungarian government's suggestion that the vote was a fraud to signify a "very sore loser".

EPP split - but in favour

The majority was made possible by a large number of ostensible allies of Orban also voting in favour of the censure procedure.

The centre-right European People's Party, in which both Hungary's ruling Fidesz party and Orban's main political opponent in Europe, German chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) are members, has until now been seen as sheltering Orban from criticism.

Orban has blamed Merkel for Europe's migration crisis, while the Hungarian leader was criticised for breaching international standards and rules on migration and treating asylum seekers harshly.

But fellow EPP MEPs reached a breaking point on Tuesday (11 September) after Orban failed to show any willingness to compromise on the key issues on academic freedom and the freedom of civil society.

The EPP group, the largest in the parliament, on Tuesday evening, held a meeting with Orban, after which their leader, Manfred Weber announced he would vote in favour of launching the procedure.

Weber comes from the Bavarian CSU party, which is a key ally to Merkel's CDU, but the two have clashed over migration recently as CSU has adopted a tougher anti-migration line, edging closer to Orban's position.

Weber wants to become the next president of the European Commission and also needs Merkel's backing.

According to the official data, 115 EPP deputies voted in favour of the move, while 57 voted against, with 28 abstentions.

MEPs belonging to Italian former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, MEPs from the French Les Republican, Slovenian, Croatian, Slovak, Czech, Bulgarian deputies and several German MEPs from the Bavarian CSU voted against triggering Article 7 against Hungary, while only one MEP from Merkel's CDU stood by Orban.

In Budapest, Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said Fidesz is the strongest party within the EPP, but its views on migration are in a minority.

"We are fighting for an EP, European Commission and EPP in which anti-migration politicians are in the majority," Szijjarto said.

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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