EU parliament votes to stop Hungary’s ‘threat’ to democracy

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Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech during a debate concerning Hungary’s situation as part of a plenary session at the European Parliament on September 11, 2018 in Strasbourg, eastern France. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowed, pn September 11, 2018, to defy EU pressure to soften his hardline anti-migrant stance, condemning what he called the “blackmail” of his country. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN

The European Parliament on Wednesday launched an action that could unleash unprecedented political sanctions against Viktor Orban’s populist Hungarian government for posing a “systemic threat” to the EU’s founding values.

The vote amounts to a stunning political blow for Prime Minister Orban, who had told the parliament on Tuesday that a scathing report leading to the vote was an insult to Hungary’s honour and people.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wasted little time in slamming the vote as “nothing less than the petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians”.

With elections for a new parliament in May 2019, the vote reflects growing pushback among traditional parties in Europe against the rise of populists, who oppose migration and are accused of undermining the rule of law.

Adopted by 448 votes for to 197 against and with 48 abstentions, the motion marked the first time the parliament has itself initiated steps under Article Seven of the European Union’s treaty. An earlier action against Poland was initiated by the EU executive.

Dutch Greens MEP Judith Sargentini, who spearheaded the vote, smiled broadly and breathed a sigh of relief before embracing her supporters in parliament in the French city of Strasbourg.

“It is a positive sign of this parliament taking responsibility and wanting action,” Sargentini told a press conference afterward.

She had urged colleagues not to let Hungary off the hook, declaring that Orban’s rule “violates the values on which this union was built.”

The vote was based on a report that voiced concerns about judicial independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious freedom, and the rights of minorities and refugees under eight years of Orban rule.

The vote takes the first steps under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, known by some in Brussels as the “nuclear option”, which could ultimately strip Hungary of its EU voting rights.

Other EU governments could halt any further action, however, and Poland has warned it would do so.

‘Historic vote’
In a brief speech to parliament on Tuesday, Orban vowed that Hungary would resist any attempt to “blackmail” it into softening its anti-migrant stance, which he charged was the motive behind the vote.

Though defiant, he was resigned to the outcome, saying the parliament seemed to have already made up its mind.

“Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and defend its rights,” said Orban, who embraces a vision of a Christian Europe and opposes an influx of Muslims and others.

Opposition to Orban’s vision does not just come from the left, with disquiet also in the main centre-right parliamentary group, the European People’s Party (EPP).

The EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, said he would vote in favour of the motion targeting Orban’s government, whose Fidesz party belongs to his grouping.

But a party spokesman said the group was divided about 50-50.

While Orban’s actions have provoked opposition, they have been applauded by populists in the EU, with prominent far-right figures floating the idea of forging a pan-European alliance ahead of next year’s elections.

The Commission, headed by EPP member Jean-Claude Juncker, has repeatedly clashed with Orban’s government, especially since Budapest refused to admit asylum seekers under an EU scheme launched at the height of the migration crisis in 2015.

In July, the EU executive body warned it could take Budapest to the European Court of Justice over laws under which anyone assisting an undocumented migrant could be jailed for a year.

The top EU court could impose fines, which would be less drastic for Hungary than losing its voting rights.

The vote was hailed as “historic” by Berber Biala-Hettinga, Amnesty International’s expert on human rights in the EU.

“The European Parliament rightly stood up for the Hungarian people and for the EU. They made it clear that human rights, the rule of law and democratic values are not up for negotiation,” she said.