Hungarian vote badly divides EPP group

The European Parliament in Strasbourg. [Shutterstock]

The centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) was badly fractured yesterday (17 May) over a vote condemning the “serious deterioration” in the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary, with 107 of the group’s MEPs voting against their sister party Fidesz, and only 92 supporting it.

The European Parliament condemned what it called a “serious deterioration” in the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary, at the start of a process that could theoretically lead to Budapest losing its EU voting rights, under Article 7 of the EU treaty. [See the text of the resolution.]

Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which has not been used until now, was designed to defend the EU’s core values such as democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. If the EU notices a “serious and persistent breach” of these values it can activate Article 7 and suspend membership rights, such as voting in the EU Council or access to the single market.

But as Article 7 is seen as a “nuclear bomb” – a deterrent that should never be used – the EU introduced the “rule of law” mechanism, under which Poland currently finds itself.

The European Union’s rule of unanimity means the nationalist-minded government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is unlikely to be stripped of its voting rights as its ally Poland could veto such a move.

With Hungarian support, Poland defies EU over rule of law

Poland dismissed on Monday (20 February) demands that it implement judiciary reforms deemed essential by the European Commission to uphold the rule of law.

However, the European Parliament’s resolution, backed by 393 deputies to 221 against, sends a strong signal to Budapest that its actions are being closely monitored.

The detail of the vote revealed by VoteWatch.eu is even more interesting. It shows that a majority of EPP MEPs voted against their sister party Fidesz. Of a total of 199 EPP votes, 107 voted against the instructions, of which 67 voted in support of the resolution and 40 abstained.

The split inside the EPP looks even more serious if, from the number of 92 “loyal” MEPs, 11 Fidesz lawmakers are not counted.

It is important to add that on this occasion, the EPP allowed their members a free vote.

EPP group leader Manfred Weber said that his force doesn’t exclude resoring to Artilce 7, but that the procedure should be “serious” and the Hungarian government should be given the chance to react.

EURACTIV exclusively reported last month that EPP was maturing to the idea of using Article 7 in the case of Hungary.

EPP warns Budapest with Article 7 'nuclear option'

EXCLUSIVE / If the democratic drift in Hungary continues, the European Union may consider placing Budapest under the Article 7 procedure of the EU Treaty, which provides for sanctions against a member state, a spokesperson from the European People’s Party (EPP) warned.

Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has eliminated checks on his power by taking control of much of Hungary’s media, curbing the powers of the constitutional court and placing loyalists in top positions at public institutions.

The European Parliament also asked the European Commission to strictly monitor Hungary’s use of EU funds and called on Budapest to repeal laws tightening rules against asylum seekers and NGOs.

The resolution also urged Hungary to reach an agreement with US government that would enable the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), founded by US financier George Soros, to continue operating as a free institution.

Hungary’s foreign minister dismissed the European Parliament resolution, saying that it amounted to a “new attack on Hungary by George Soros’ network”.

Orbán: Hungary has no big issue with EU, it has a problem with Soros

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he was committed to the EU and accused US billionaire George Soros of “attacking” his country yesterday (26 April) as he defended a law that could close down a university founded by the philanthropist.

“European institutions are clearly unable to accept the fact that … the Government of Hungary is continuing to practice a migration policy that is exclusively aimed at ensuring the security of Hungary,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said.

Orbán’s critics say new legislation endangers the continued existence of the CEU, long considered a bastion of independent scholarship in Central Europe. The European Commission has started separate legal action against Hungary over the issue.

The European Parliament will now prepare a formal resolution to launch a process to determine whether there is a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values by Budapest.

The process would be based on article 7 of the EU Treaty, whereby EU governments can ask a member state to take specific action to end a serious breach of EU values.

If that country ignores the recommendations, the 27 other EU governments can then decide by unanimity to suspend its voting rights. The right-wing government in Poland, which is currently under the EU’s rule of law monitoring procedure over its own actions, would be expected to veto any action against Hungary.