MEPs vote to activate sanction process against Hungary

The European parliament has voted to trigger an EU sanction process against Hungary over violations of the rule of law under the prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
MEPs on the civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee voted to launch the EU’s disciplinary procedure against the country, a lengthy legal process that could lead to Hungary being stripped of voting rights.
While that outcome is very unlikely, the unprecedented vote on Monday is a symbolic move against Orbán, who was re-elected for a third term in April, after a campaign that international observers said had clearly favoured the ruling coalition and was characterised by intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric.
The decision by MEPs throws down a gauntlet to Europe’s most powerful political alliance, the European People’s party (EPP), the group Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker are a part of, which has been accused of legitimatising Orbán by keeping his Fidesz party in its ranks.
On Monday morning, EPP MEPs held a free vote in an indication of the acute divisions within the bloc. The European parliament has the power to trigger the EU’s little-used rule of law mechanism, known as article 7, but this was the first time it attempted to do so.
Josef Weidenholzer, an Austrian Social Democrat MEP, said the EU had to act. “Hungary is now in a situation – [where] we would call it it a facade democracy.”
The vote is only a first step; a final decision to launch the procedure requires a two-thirds majority in the European parliament.
If a majority of MEPs vote in September, ministers will be obliged to consider whether there is a serious and persistent breach of the EU’s basic democratic values in Hungary.
The Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini had spent 13 months drafting a report to prepare for the unprecedented procedure. It is based on the work of many international organisations and raises 12 key concerns about the erosion of democracy in Hungary.
The draft report highlights fears about the functioning of Hungary’s constitution, which has been amended six times since 2012. It also itemises concerns about the centralisation of justice, declining transparency over state funds and threats to freedom of expression and the right to equal treatment.
“Close friends do not shy away from telling each other the unpleasant truth,” the report states. “Based on the process sketched above, your rapporteur sees the need to request the council to come forward with appropriate measures to restore inclusive democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights in Hungary.”
The report was completed before the Hungarian parliament passed widely criticised anti-immigrant laws last week that made it a criminal offence punishable by a jail term to help people lodge asylum claims.
The European commission is “now going to review the Hungarian legislation on migration to determine whether it is compatible with European rules”, a spokeswoman said last week.
Hungary’s response was made plain in a radio interview during which Orbán lashed out at the commission for “pestering, pressuring and attacking Poland” and “attacking Hungary”.
Orbán has long accused the commission of overreaching with its powers, a charge he has stepped up in recent years with a “Stop Brussels” campaign. He said the anti-immigration legislation had been flagged up in the electoral campaign. “The people wanted this and the people voted for this,” Orbán told state radio last week. “Who would dare to criticise or condemn the 80 or 90% decision of a country’s legislature?”
The EU triggered the rule of law process for the first time in 2017, when it took action against Poland for changes to the judiciary that international experts say threaten the rule of law.
Poland’s EU affairs minister will appear before his 27 counterparts from the other member states at a hearing on Tuesday, where he will seek to counter the charge of a “systemic threat” to Polish democracy.