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European Parliament votes to punish Hungary for undermining democratic values

James Crisp
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has defended his country's record - REUTERS

Hungary faces the loss of its European Union voting rights after MEPs triggered a punitive procedure to prevent EU countries backsliding on democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

In an unprecedented vote that exposed deep EU divisions, the European Parliament in Strasbourg backed a report calling for Hungary to be sanctioned for its crackdown on NGOs, the media and universities.

Budapest’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto denounced the vote to trigger the “Article 7” procedure as the “petty revenge” of “pro-immigration politicians”.

He also claimed that the vote involved "massive fraud" since abstentions weren't counted into the final tally, which made it easier to reach the needed majority.

"It is a positive sign of this parliament taking responsibility and wanting action," Judith Sargentini, the Dutch Green MEP who spearheaded the vote, said.

"Viktor Orban's government has been leading the charge against European values by silencing independent media, replacing critical judges, and putting academia on a leash," she said.

Her report accused the country of corruption,a biased judiciary, as well as raising minority and migrant rights.

Hungary has long been at loggerheads with Brussels over its opposition to the EU’s mandatory migrant quotas and strongman leader Viktor Orban has allied himself with Eurosceptic leaders such as Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini.

The vote was carried despite needing a two thirds majority. There were 448 votes for to 197 against and with 48 abstentions, in a sign that MEPs were preparing to push back against what has been dubbed Europe’s populist wave.

MEPs from the European People’s Party, the largest group in the parliament, turned against Mr Orban after many years of supporting him. His Fidesz party is a member of the centre-right pan-EU faction. Its leader Manfred Weber, who hopes to become the next European Commission president, voted in favour of punishing Hungary.

British Conservative MEPs voted against, which Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said was “absolutely shocking”. Downing Street claimed it was not consulted before the vote.

It is the first time Article 7 has been triggered by the European Parliament. Poland is already facing the procedure after it was brought by the European Commission.

Although the “nuclear button” of Article 7 has been pushed, the ultimate sanction of a loss of voting rights is a long way off. EU member states must unanimously back any further action, which appears unlikely.

Budapest has already vowed to veto any attempt to strip Warsaw of its EU voting rights in the European Council in Brussels. Poland, in turn, has warned it will block any further action against Hungary.

Earlier on Wednesday, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, called for a “stronger, more united Europe” in his annual flagship speech but criticised Hungary in veiled terms.

On Tuesday, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist strongman leader, spoke in the European Parliament.

He claimed that the verdict had “already been written”. “Hungary will be condemned because Hungarians have decided their country is not going to be a country of migrants," he told MEPs on Tuesday.

He said that European Parliament elections in May next year would be the battleground between pro-EU and nationalistic politicians where Europe’s future direction would be settled. Prominent far-right figures are floating the idea of forging a pan-European alliance ahead of next year's elections.

Mr Orban insisted that all of the criticism against his government is based on Hungary's tough anti-immigration policies, which include fences built in 2015 on Hungary's southern borders with Serbian and Croatia to divert the flow of migrants and very restrictive asylum rules. He has also expressed his desire to remain within the EPP, which he said was "deeply divided" on the issue of migration.