A decisive vote in the European Parliament will take place on Wednesday 12 September in Strasbourg on the launching of an Article 7 procedure against Hungary, in what would only be the second time that the punitive measure has been invoked by Brussels. Article 7 of the Treaties of the European Union can be activated in cases of a “clear risk of serious breach” of the rule of law in a Member State. The procedure has so far only been initiated once: at the end of 2017, against the Polish government.
On Tuesday, Viktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister and advocate of “illiberalism”, will travel to Strasbourg to defend his government’s actions in a plenary session of the parliament. His aim will be to dissuade MEPs from voting for the procedure, which is considered radical and politically stigmatizing, even if it has not yet proved its effectiveness: Warsaw has so far still not significantly amended the judicial reforms that landed it in trouble with Brussels.
How did Hungary find itself in the dock?
The procedure was initiated at the end of 2017 when a report on the rule of law in Hungary was commissioned by the committee for civil liberties. Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini completed her draft report in the spring and concluded that there were sufficient grounds for triggering Article 7. Budapest takes the matter very seriously, even though government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs described Ms Sargentini’s report as a “fabric of lies.”
Article 7 of the Union Treaties can only be triggered by the European Parliament if at least two-thirds of the votes cast in the plenary session are in favour of it. The radical and social democratic European left should support the Sargentini report; Liberals and Democrats too. On the other hand, the EPP, to which Orban’s Fidesz party belongs, is very divided. Half of its elected representatives voted for the Sargentini report in the Committee on Legal Affairs in April.
Once Article 7 has been recommended to the Council, the member states then have to put the procedure into motion: this requires a majority of four-fifths of the votes in favour in the parliament. This is followed by consultations with the government of the country concerned. In theory, Article 7 can lead, if the Member State remains uncooperative, to a suspension of its voting rights in the Council, which would virtually exclude Budapest from having a say on EU affairs. The likelihood of this extreme measure being taken is slight, however.
What does the Sargentini report say?
Ms Sargentini listed in her report threats to media freedom, the questioning of the independence of the judiciary, regular attacks on non-governmental organisations, renewed anti-Semitism and the questioning of certain social rights.
She also denounced the migration policy of the Orban government and its refusal to accept the principle of European solidarity. Since 2015, the Prime Minister has consistently refused to take part in the EU’s refugee sharing plans aimed at relieving the pressure on Italy and Greece.
What does the Hungarian government say?
The report has not changed the official position of Budapest, as evidenced by a letter sent to all MEPs by Judit Varga, Minister for EU relations. Hungary, she says “vigorously rejects” the report which resulted on a vote in the committee of freedoms in favour of triggering Article 7 in June.
What happens to the EPP if there is a vote in favour of Article 7?
It is difficult for the EPP’s pro-European leaders not to reappraise their support for Orban, even though they have defended him so far in the hopes of keeping his party in the family and avoiding a haemorrhage of voters from the centre-right to the far-right. The EPP “expects Viktor Orban to take a step towards his European partners this week and to be ready for compromise,” said Manfred Weber, the EPP leader in Strasbourg.
“If he does not, I expect extremely difficult debates within the EPP group. For us, it is clear that the fundamental values of the European Union are not negotiable,” added the Bavarian politician.