The European Union has finally lost patience with Hungary, voting Wednesday to discipline Viktor Orban’s authoritarian government for eroding the bloc’s democratic norms.
Following a fiery debate in which Orban accused the European Parliament in Strasbourg of insulting his country, lawmakers voted 448 to 197, with 48 abstentions, to launch Article 7 disciplinary proceedings, passing a motion declaring that Hungary was at risk of breaching the EU’s core values.
The process, known as the EU’s nuclear option, opens the door to the most serious sanction the bloc can impose on one of its members — suspending its right to vote on EU affairs.
Why was the vote held?
The matter was put to a vote due to longstanding tensions over the authoritarian direction of Orban’s nationalist government, which, since coming to power in 2010, has set about remaking Hungary as a bastion of “illiberal democracy” — one based on conservative Christian values, as opposed to the pluralistic, liberal values of the European establishment.
Arguing that the mass influx of Muslim refugees threatens European civilization, Orban’s Fidesz government has refused to accept EU-mandated refugee quotas, and made it illegal to render assistance to asylum seekers.
The vote followed the tabling of a report by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, which found that Hungary’s curbs on the media and academia, erosion of judicial independence, and treatment of asylum seekers and other minorities posed a “systemic threat to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.”
What happens now?
The vote doesn’t automatically result in a penalty for Hungary. Rather, it means a formal warning is issued to Budapest, while it kickstarts the laborious process that could theoretically result in Hungary being temporarily stripped of voting rights on the European Council, among other sanctions.
The matter will now go to the European Council — made up of the national leaders of the EU’s member states — for their vote on the issue.
But since EU rules require a unanimous decision from the Council before sanctions can be imposed, the issue is likely to stall there. Hungary can count on the support of its close ally Poland, also ruled by a nationalist, conservative, and anti-immigration government, to veto sanctions.
Poland is also currently subject to Article 7 disciplinary proceedings after the European Commission voted in December to launch them over Warsaw’s judicial reforms, which they say have eroded judicial independence.
So what’s the point?
Even though sanctions are unlikely, the vote to launch the proceedings — effectively training the most powerful political weapon at the bloc’s disposal against the government in Budapest — sends a powerful message, while creating a forum for criticism that European lawmakers hope might rein in Orban.
His defiantly illiberal politics has emerged as one of the most serious threats to the EU in recent years, highlighting the growing tensions between the governments in Western Europe who see the bloc as upholding liberal values, and increasingly emboldened governments in Central and Eastern Europe who are challenging the Brussels consensus on thorny issues such as immigration, multiculturalism, and identity.
Orban has also emerged as a major challenge for the conservative European People’s Party, which is the largest grouping in the European Parliament and includes both Fidesz as well as lawmakers from the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As lawmakers in Strasbourg debated Hungary’s conduct Tuesday ahead of the vote, Orban’s government came in for stinging criticism.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said Hungary would never have been allowed to join the bloc in 2004 if it were the country Orban had made it today, while Dutch lawmaker Sophie in ‘t Veld called on the EU to slash its subsidies to his government. “Why are we giving Mr. Orban 87 million euros a week in order to destroy the European Union?” she asked.
Even Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who shares Orban’s hardline views against immigration, said his party would vote to censure Hungary. “We believe that there can be no compromises on the rule of law and democracy,” he said.
But Orban — who was re-elected in a landslide win earlier this year — struck a defiant stance as he spoke in Strasbourg Tuesday, arguing that the vote amounted to revenge by the EU for his government’s refusal to accept refugees.
“Hungary shall not bow to blackmail… Hungary shall continue to defend its borders, stop illegal immigration and defend its rights — against you, too, if necessary,” he said.
“The report in front of you insults Hungary and insults the honor of the Hungarian nation,” he added.
Cover image: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech during a debate on the situation in Hungary at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, September 11, 2018. (REUTERS/Vincent Kessler)