Hungary sanctions vote 'too close to call'

Written by Martin Banks on 11 September 2018 in News
News

MEPs will vote in Strasbourg on Wednesday on whether to invoke the so-called Article 7 mechanism against Hungary. The triggering of the article necessitates a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, and, if successful, allows for the use of sanctions such as limits on voting rights. 

Viktor Orbán | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual


Udo Bullmann, the leader of Parliament’s S&D group, says he is confident the assembly will give overwhelming support to a resolution calling for EU measures to be taken against Hungary in protest at a perceived decline in the rule of the law in the country.

Speaking ahead of the vote at a news conference in Parliament on Tuesday, he said he believes there will be “unanimous” support for the resolution for triggering Article 7, a relatively rarely used procedure by the EU.

However, the German MEP told reporters he believes such EU action was necessary and the motion will be adopted in order “to defend European values.”


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A ‘Yes’ vote would mark a significant escalation in the EU’s response to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Since he returned to power in 2010, it is claimed that he has presided over a weakening of press freedom, an erosion of judicial independence and the alleged misspending of EU funds by his family and friends.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose party sits in the European People’s Party (EPP) together with Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, has previously said his MEPs would vote for launching the procedure, arguing, “There are no compromises on the rule of law. The core values need to be protected.” Kurz added that if the procedure was successfully triggered, he would support expelling Fidesz from the EPP. 

It is still unclear how MEPs from the EPP, which, as by far the biggest grouping in Parliament will have a key bearing on the outcome, will vote this week.

The vote is also seen by some as a key personal test for EPP group leader Manfred Weber, who last week announced he was a candidate for the European Commission presidency. It is not known how he will vote.

However, he told German newspaper Bild, “We expect the Hungarian Prime Minister to take a step towards his European partners and show his readiness to compromise. For the EPP group, it is clear: European values are not negotiable.”

An EPP source said there will not be an enforced group line in the keenly awaited vote, but a group ‘Yes’ vote in favour of Article 7 could be the start of a Fidesz departure from the party family.

One parliamentary insider said, “It is a question of whether Weber will want to keep Orbán on side in order to maintain as broad a base as possible for the 2019 elections. Then again, he could conclude that Orbán is more of a hindrance than help.”

Orbán, who was re-elected in April, is expected to robustly defend the legislative changes in Hungary  when he addresses MEPs in Strasbourg later on Tuesday. 

Bullmann, at his news conference, was critical of the centre-right party, saying the EPP appeared more concerned in wanting to be “best friends” with the Hungarian Prime Minister, who has been widely criticised for introducing a raft of measures seen as “undemocratic” and an attack on citizens’ rights.

Bullmann said the EPP regularly appeared reluctant to criticise Orbán and that it was also “regrettable” that the Austrian EU Council presidency apparently had no plans to send a representative to Parliament for the debate and vote on Hungary on Wednesday.

Speaking at a separate news conference on Tuesday, Greens/EFA group co-leader Ska Keller said, “The vote on Hungary is a decisive moment for every political group and each individual member of Parliament. We must not leave the playing field open to right-wing nationalists.”

She added, “This vote is an indicator of how seriously each individual member of Parliament takes the idea of democracy in the European Union. The responsibility weighs particularly heavy on

Manfred Weber. Defending European values is the aptitude test for anyone who wants to become President of the Commission.”

She went on, “Manfred Weber and the entire EPP must decide whether they stand on the side of the rule of law and democracy, or prefer to stick by their party friend.”

Judith Sargentini, who has spearheaded the process through Parliament and backs Article 7 being invoked, said the outcome was too close to call.

She said, “The facts don’t lie. I cannot conclude anything else than that there is a risk of a serious and systematic breach of European values that we all share. This makes it so important that all members of this Parliament must speak out. Abstention is the wrong thing to do because it is seen as a ‘No’ vote.”

The ECR group, however, says Article 7 action is “misguided and counter-productive” and will vote against the move, arguing it interferes in the sovereignty of a member state and goes far beyond the remit of Parliament.

The group’s home affairs spokesperson Dan Dalton said, “This report crosses a boundary by politicising what should be a purely legal matter. If the EU’s treaties have been breached by any member state, it is for the European Commission to build a legal case against it. 

“MEPs have no role to play in the process and their involvement leaves any subsequent legal action open to the accusation that it is politically motivated. This report is misguided, counter-productive and sets a dangerous precedent. I hope Parliament votes against.”

Poland is the only EU country currently subject to the Article 7 process after the European Commission said changes to its judiciary constituted a threat to the rule of law.

 

About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter for the Parliament Magazine

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