Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (standing), recently said: "We need a new European Commission that is committed to the defense of Europe's borders." (Photo by Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images)
The European Parliament has voted to pursue unprecedented disciplinary action against Hungary over alleged breaches of the European Union's "fundamental values." The EU has accused the Hungarian government of attacks against the media, minorities and the rule of law.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has denied the charges, and said they are a retaliation for his government's refusal to take in migrants from the Muslim world.
The censure represents another salvo in a showdown between pro- and anti-EU forces over populism and nationalism ahead of European Parliament elections in May 2019.
During a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 12, MEPs voted 448-to-197 — by a margin of more than two-thirds — to trigger Article 7 against Hungary. It was the first time that such parliamentary action has been taken against an EU member state; the move can ultimately lead to Hungary losing its voting rights in EU institutions.
Article 7, sometimes dubbed the "Nuclear Option," threatens sanctions against EU member states deemed to be in violation of the EU's fundamental values, which are defined as "liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law."
Orbán is accused of undermining the independence of Hungary's judiciary and media; waging a legal battle against the Central European University (CEU), founded by the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros; mistreating asylum seekers and refugees and introducing a law that makes it a criminal offense for lawyers and activists to help them.
Article 7 is a two-step process that moves from "preventive measures" (Article 7.1) to "punitive measures" (Article 7.2); EU governments will now have to decide whether to impose sanctions. Hungary is likely to escape the most serious sanction of suspending the country's vote in the bloc because that would require unanimity and Poland, which has had its own run-in with the EU, has pledged to protect Orbán.
In January 2018, the European Parliament approved a non-binding resolution urging EU countries to "swiftly determine" whether Poland is breaching EU values over judicial reforms.
The threshold for enacting Article 7 is high — it requires a two-thirds majority in the European Parliament to pass. Previous attempts to hold a vote against Hungary failed because of a lack of support, in particular from the European People's Party (EPP), the European Parliament's pan-European center-right political group of which Orbán's party, Fidesz, is a member.
The vote to trigger Article 7 proceeded after EPP leader Manfred Weber unexpectedly announced his support for the move. Weber's reversal came less than two weeks after he announced his candidacy to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission. Weber's about-face is almost certainly part of an effort to garner cross-party support for his candidacy.
Weber's decision will raise questions about Orbán's future with the EPP, the largest bloc in the European Parliament, precisely at a time when he has vowed to unite other nationalists to fight against the EU's open-door migration policies.
In August, Orbán and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini pledged to seek a coordinated strategy ahead of the March 2019 European Parliament elections to defeat the pro-immigration Party of European Socialists (PES), a pan-European party representing national-level socialist parties from all EU member states. The objective of the two men is to change the political composition of European institutions, including the European Parliament and the European Commission, to reverse the EU's open-door migration policies.
"We need a new European Commission that is committed to the defense of Europe's borders," Orbán said. "We need a Commission after the European elections that does not punish those countries — like Hungary — that protect their borders."
Orbán attacked Weber and implored the EPP to "find its way back to the path marked out by the founders ... and to the values, directions, courage and character which will ensure that the Christian approach — the Christian conservative approach — also has a party in European politics, and that people who think this way are also represented in Europe. Because that is not the case today." He added that the EPP was hamstrung by political correctness:
"In recent years we have lost our character and abandoned the teachings of our founding fathers. We have become a European political family with no character, that has no independent will, that is constantly cautious and measuring its own steps — while to all intents and purposes we are dancing to the tune of the socialists and liberals. The European People's Party only has one goal: to avoid, heaven forbid, being castigated in the European press or in European forums."
The Article 7 proceedings against Hungary are the brainchild of a Dutch member of the Greens party, Judith Sargentini, who steered the recommendation through the European Parliament. "This is foremost about the rights of Hungarian citizens," she tweeted after the vote in Strasbourg.
In April 2018, Sargentini published a 26-page report that raises concerns about the judiciary, corruption, freedom of expression, and the rights of migrants in Hungary. (It might be worth mentioning that the European Parliament itself has repeatedly been accused of corruption and has steadfastly refused to cooperate with external investigators.)
Orbán, who has referred to the so-called Sargentini Report as the "Soros Report," charges that the report's authors failed to send even a single fact-finding delegation to Hungary and that the document is riddled with inaccuracies. He has accused Sargentini herself of acting in an anti-democratic manner:
"A few months ago ... there was an election in Hungary. The Hungarian people decided what should happen, and during the election campaign we discussed all of the issues — including CEU, the NGOs, and all of the important political issues. And the people decided on these issues. And now the European Parliament is taking upon itself the task of overruling the decision made by the people of Hungary and forcing the Hungarian government to implement what they are attempting to impose on us in place of the people's decision."
Ahead of the vote in the European Parliament, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his 2018 "State of the Union" address — entitled, "The Hour of European Sovereignty" — in which he warned of rising nationalism and the threat it poses to the European Union. "Article 7 must be applied whenever the rule of law is threatened," he warned.
Juncker later hailed the European Parliament's decision:
"If I was a member of the European Parliament, I would have voted in favor of Article 7. The European Commission is using the tools we have, launching infringement procedures against countries that don't respect EU law. I am in harmony with today's decision."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó ridiculed the vote. He called it the "petty revenge" of "pro-immigration" politicians:
"Hungary and the Hungarian people have been convicted because we have proven that migration is not needed and that it can be stopped."
Politicians from other EU countries defended Orbán's government. In Britain, for example, pro-Brexit MEP Nigel Farage branded the European Parliament's debate over Hungary as a "show trial" and added:
"Thank God there is at least one European leader prepared to stand up for his principles, his nation, his culture and his people, in the face of such extreme bullying."
After the vote, Farage tweeted that the European Parliament's decision reflected "the authoritarian grip of the EU."
In the Netherlands, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, tweeted, "Hungary is the example for all EU countries and Orbán is a hero and deserves the Nobel Prize."
Orbán, who has been in power since May 2010 and who was reelected by a landslide in April 2018, is unlikely to be deterred by the European Parliament's action. In a defiant speech to the European Parliament on September 11, one day before the censure, Orbán delivered a stinging rebuke of the Sargentini Report in general and of the European Union in particular:
"I know that you have already formed your opinions. I know that the majority of you will vote in favor of the report. I also know that my contribution now will not sway your opinions. Yet still I have come here [to Strasbourg] because you are not about to denounce a government, but a country and a people. You will denounce the Hungary, which has been a member of the family of Europe's Christian peoples for a thousand years; the Hungary which has contributed to the history of our great continent of Europe with its work and, when needed, with its blood. You will denounce the Hungary which rose and took up arms against the world's largest army, against the Soviets, which made the highest sacrifice for freedom and democracy, and, when it was needed, opened its borders to its East German brothers and sisters in distress. Hungary has fought for its freedom and democracy. I stand here now and I see that Hungary is being arraigned by people who inherited democracy, not needing to assume any personal risk for the pursuit of freedom. And now these people want to denounce the Hungarian freedom-fighters of the anti-communist, democratic resistance.
"I stand here now and defend my homeland, because to Hungarians freedom, democracy, independence and Europe are matters of honor. This is why I say that the report before you is an affront to the honor of Hungary and the Hungarian people. Hungary's decisions are made by the voters in parliamentary elections. What you are claiming is no less than saying that the Hungarian people are not sufficiently capable of being trusted to judge what is in their own interests. You think that you know the needs of the Hungarian people better than the Hungarian people themselves. Therefore, I must say to you that this report does not show respect for the Hungarian people. This report applies double standards, it is an abuse of power, it oversteps the limits on spheres of competence, and the method of its adoption is a treaty violation.
"To us in Hungary, democracy and freedom are not political questions, but moral questions. You now seek to pass moral judgement and stigmatize a country and a people on the basis of a numerical majority. You are assuming a grave responsibility when — for the first time in the history of the European Union — you seek to exclude a people from decision-making in Europe. You would strip Hungary of its right to represent its own interests within the European family that it is a member of. We have, and will continue to have, disputes: we think differently about Europe's Christian character, and the role of nations and national cultures; we interpret the essence and mission of the family in different ways; and we have diametrically opposed views on migration. If we truly want unity in diversity, then our differences cannot be cause for the stigmatization of any country, or for excluding it from the opportunity of engaging in joint decision-making. We would never sink so low as to silence those with whom we disagree....
"Every nation and Member State has the right to decide on how to organize its life in its own country. We shall defend our borders, and we alone shall decide who we want to live with. We have built a fence and have stopped the entry of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants; we have defended Hungary, and we have defended Europe. Today, for the first time in the history of the European Union, we see a community denouncing its own border guards.
"Let us speak plainly: you want to denounce Hungary because the Hungarian people have decided that our homeland will not become an immigrant country. With due respect, but in the strongest possible terms, I reject the threats, the blackmail, the slander and fraudulent accusations levelled against Hungary and the Hungarian people by the European Parliament's pro-immigration and pro-migrant forces. I respectfully inform you that, whatever decision you come to, 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. We Hungarians stand ready for the elections next May, when the people will finally have the chance to decide the future of Europe, and will have the opportunity to restore democracy to European politics."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.