The European Parliament has decided to draw up a report on whether EU laws and values are respected in Hungary, after Budapest passed controversial state reforms that are widely seen as undemocratic. MEPs will later decide whether to activate Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which is used to investigate breaches of EU values.
The resolution - tabled by centre-left and left political groups - was approved 315-263 with 49 abstentions.
It drew strong criticism from the centre-right European People's Party to which the Fidesz party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is affiliated.
The four-page resolution calls on the European Commission to closely monitor the changes to some of Hungary's basic laws and how it puts them into practice.
MEPs have called on the Conference of Presidents – the leaders of the Parliament and its political groups – to consider activating Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which is used in the event of a clear risk of a serious breach of EU common values.
Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, was the first to call for making use of Article 7 in the case of Hungary. [More on the content of the resolution].
The resolution was backed by ALDE, along with the Socialists and Democrats, the Greens/European Free Alliance and the European United Left.
Deadline expires today
The European Commission on 17 January began infringement procedures against Hungary, focusing on concerns about the independence of the central bank and data protection authority, as well as the lowering of the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 to 62 years.
The Commission also asked the Hungarian authorities for further information on the judiciary and whether recent changes in law compromised its independence.
The Hungarian government was given one month to respond, with the deadline expiring today (17 February). Recently, Hungarian representatives said that the country would accept most revisions demanded by the Commission, even where it considers the EU executive to be wrong.
Parliament attack 'premature'
The EPP group blasted the sponsors of the resolution for "making a judgement before the end of the process".
"This is the authoritarian method. This is the method which is against European values," declared MEP Kinga Gál (Hungary).
Simon Busuttil of Malta said the resolution "undermines the Hungarian people's trust in the EU and the credibility of the European Parliament".
"These actions nourish the emergence of political extremism and Euro-scepticism. This is against the interest of the EU as a whole," Busuttil stated.
Commissioner Kroes under fire
The debate and vote took place after Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes made controversial statements at a recent hearing in Parliament on the situation in Hungary.
The Digital Agenda commissioner quoted an unnamed colleague as stating that discrimination against ethnic minorities was rife in Hungary and getting worse. Minority groups were discriminated against when they sought employment, police were under instruction to monitor them, and racism in schools was becoming more open and more accepted, Kroes said, adding that some ethnic groups were living in fear of violent attacks.
Hungarian MEP Lívia Járóka (EPP) said she was shocked to hear "such pernicious allusions from the second highest ranking official of the EU without even the slightest attempt to prove them with facts and reliable data".
MEPs Kinga Gál of Hungary, vice chairwoman of the Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee, and Simon Busuttil of Malta, both from the European People's Party (EPP), spoke out against the resolution. They issued a joint statement saying:
"By adopting a condemning resolution on Hungary, the Socialist, Liberal, Green and Communist Groups of the European Parliament are neglecting the fact that there is an ongoing dialogue between the Hungarian Government and the European Commission.
"These Groups have already made their judgement before the end of this process. This is the authoritarian method. This is the method which is against European values. With the adoption of this premature and groundless Resolution, the Left and Liberal parties of the EP are undermining Hungarian people's trust in the European Union and the credibility of the European Parliament."
Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt, the ALDE leaders, said: "Today the European Parliament confirmed its commitment to fighting any violation by a member state or government, such as the Orbán government, against our common European values of freedom and democracy. This is a vote in defence of the Hungarian citizens, and those across the EU that face similar threats to their liberty and checks and balances of the democratic system.
"In a clear condemnation of the government of Viktor Orbán, a European Parliamentary majority today denounced threats in Hungary to democracy, the rule of law, media freedom, the independence of the judiciary, and respect for and protection of human and social rights."
Renate Weber of Romania, the ALDE coordinator in the civil liberties committee, said that Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty allows, in case of "clear risk", to send a warning signal before the risk materialises.
"The risk in Hungary has already and clearly materialised," Weber said. "Apart from some issues already tackled by the Commission under infringement proceedings that confirm it, still many others remain unaddressed, such as freedom and pluralism of the media, the rights of political opposition, the law on churches and religious, the law on the criminalisation of homeless persons, just to mention a few. That is why, with today's resolution, the majority in the EP agreed to prepare a report to monitor developments in Hungary, and possibly pursue further actions under Article 7.1 TEU should the government not change direction".
French GUE/NGL MEP Marie Christine Vergiat said after the vote: "Now it's time for action - all European institutions should work to examine the Hungarian Constitution and 300 recently passed laws - including 30 so-called cardinal laws - to accurately determine whether they are in line with human rights principles. ...
"I wanted this text to be stronger in denouncing a range of discriminatory provisions, such as the persecution of homosexuals in Hungary. The resolution also does not address the new education laws that pose a real threat to the diversity of education and equality of access. The European Commission has been conspicuous by its slowness in the implementation procedures. This should have also been clearly criticised by Parliament's resolution," Vergiat said.
Amnesty International issued a statement in support of the vote. "We warmly welcome the fact that the European Parliament is considering whether to activate the Article 7 mechanism to investigate the risk of a serious breach of human rights by Hungary. We hope this move will set a precedent and lead to better protection of fundamental rights throughout the EU," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.