With over two thirds of the vote, the European Parliament on Wednesday decided to call on the European Commission to trigger sanctions against Hungary under Article 7, which include temporary loss of voting rights in the European Council.
The vote is the effect of a report debated the previous day, accusing Hungary of corruption, breaching minority rights, perpetrating abuses against immigrants, eroding press, social and academic liberties. The author of the document, the Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini with the European Greens, claims Hungary failed to uphold European principles and is not a fully functional democracy. Over the last eight years Hungary has been on a downward trend, its citizens finding it increasingly difficult to express their opinion, the report shows. At the same time, Sargentini argues the election law was changed, preventing the opposition from campaigning for fair and unbiased elections.
This is the first time the European legislative body has chosen to notify the Council over rule of law irregularities in a member state. In the case of Poland, the European Commission launched a similar procedure in December 2017. On the day of the vote, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said, in his state of the union address, that the Commission opposes any systemic threat to the rule of law, which will automatically lead to activating Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. The vote against Hungary shows that Conservatives and Christian-Democrats have grown tired of protecting Viktor Orban, whom many consider to be Central Europe’s troublemaker.
During Tuesday’s debate prior to the vote, Viktor Orban delivered a defying speech, stigmatizing the report which led to the sanctioning procedure. Prime Minister Orban labeled the report an insult to Hungary, grounded on double standards. Hungary cannot be condemned for wanting to be a country free of illegal immigrants, Orban went on to say. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry said the vote was a “petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians”.
Article 7 is considered to be the EU’s “nuclear weapon”, as it may lead to suspending a member state’s right to vote in the European Council, and it has never been activated since the EU was founded. Sanctioning Hungary is yet highly unlikely, as this would require the unanimity of Member States, with Poland already making it clear it would oppose any sanctions brought against Budapest.
Wednesday’s decision nevertheless stands as a warning for leaders and governments toying with what political scientists have termed “illiberal democracy”, where election winners use their comfortable majorities in Parliament to legitimise discretionary actions going against the principles of the rule of law. The controversial modifications brought to the justice laws and the criminal codes as well as the unwarranted forceful intervention of the gendarmerie during the August 10 protest have made Bucharest a target of the most vocal advocates of the rule of law and the EU principles.
(translated by: Vlad Palcu)