The European Parliament has voted by an overwhelming majority to approve a report which asks EU member states to determine, in accordance with Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union, whether Hungary is at risk of breaching the EU´s founding values.
“What is the state of our union, what shape are we in?”, asked MEP Judith Sargentini, author of the report accusing the Hungarian government of breaching it’s obligations, during the parliamentary session.
“Article 2 of the treaty reads: the union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights including the rights of persons belonging to a minority. Are all member states fulfilling this commitment? I am afraid not,” she continued.
Article 7, also known as the nuclear option, is the EU’s punishment clause when there is a “clear risk of a serious breach” of the bloc’s core principles.
“The Hungarian government has effectively silenced independent media. By putting academia on a leash, future generation will not learn to appreciate critical thinking,” said Mrs Sargentini.
“It has replaced independent judges with those who are close to the regime. It makes life miserable for NGOs to provide services to citizens in need such as homeless people, migrants, refugees and marginalised groups like the Roma; services that lighten the work of local governments and are often financed with EU funding. And on top of that individuals in the government have enriched themselves, their family members and their friends, from public funding and from European tax payers money,” she added.
“You are not going to condemn a government, but a country as well as a nation. You are going to denounce Hungary that has been a member of the family of Christian European nations for thousand years,” replied Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who arrived at the debate late, and interrupted Mrs Sargentini’s speech, forcing her to start again.
“I defend my country because for Hungarians liberty, democracy, independence and Europe are questions of honour. This is why I say that the reports in front of you insult Hungary and insult the honour of the Hungarian nation,” he continued.
“You think that you know the needs of the Hungarian people better than the Hungarian people themselves. Hungary shall continue to defend its borders, stop illegal immigration and defend its rights – against you, too, if necessary,” Mr Orbán concluded.
Once adopted, Article 7 consists of two parts: a warning mechanism followed by sanctions which will suspend Hungarian voting rights in EU decisions.
The report was first presented and voted on in June, but MEPs decided that little had changed since then. Indeed, during the summer, one of the last independent news channels changed ownership.
“It is particularly disappointing that member states turned a blind eye to the structural erosion of the rule of law in a fellow member state. If this house fails to use this emergency break we fail to deliver the European citizens what was promised to them in the treaty,” concluded Mrs Sargentini.
The case will now be sent to the EU member states to vote on at the European Council. They may, acting by a majority of four-fifths, determine the existence of a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Hungary.
The Council would first have to hear the views of the Hungarian authorities, and parliament would need to give consent for sanctions.
Only then may the European Council determine, unanimously and with the parliament’s consent, the existence in Hungary of a serious and persistent breach of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.