NGOs go jubilant over Hungary as EPP coherence crumbles

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds a document of the Motion For a European Parliament Resolution, Article 7 during his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 11 September 2018. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

Human rights NGOs enthusiastically welcomed the European Parliament’s approval to start punitive Article 7 proceedings against Hungary on Wednesday (12 September), after a vote that revealed deep divisions inside the biggest political family, the European People’s Party.

Following a heated debate in the presence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Tuesday and a rather evasive State of the Union address by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the report by Green MEP Judith Sargentini was adopted by a two-third majority of MEPs.

“I am so proud that my Hungary report has the support of the European Parliament, but this is foremost about the rights of Hungarian citizens,” Sargentini wrote on Twitter after the vote.

The vote has, however, exposed a deepening rift inside the EPP, the political home of Orban’s Fidesz party.

Before the vote, EPP leader Manfred Weber, who has announced his candidacy for the Commission’s top job and has been a staunch defender of Orban until now, indicated that his patience for his Hungarian party colleagues was coming to an end.

However, most of his own German CSU party colleagues voted against the report.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, echoing Orban’s longtime position, called the Wednesday’s vote “petty revenge” against Hungary for its tough anti-migration policies and said the vote involved “massive fraud” because abstentions were not included into the final count, which made it easier to reach the needed majority.

“The decision was made in a fraudulent way, and contrary to relevant rules in European treaties,” he told Reuters.

The outcome of the vote was keenly welcomed by human rights NGOs, political organisations and academia.

“In today’s historic vote, the European Parliament rightly stood up for the Hungarian people and for the EU. They made it clear that human rights, the rule of law and democratic values are not up for negotiation,” said Berber Biala-Hettinga, Amnesty International’s expert on human rights in the EU.

“A resounding majority of MEPs today rejected and condemned the retrograde policies of the Hungarian government, which are taking Hungary away from the path of shared EU values. Hungary firmly belongs in the EU, but xenophobia and disrespect for fundamental freedoms and rights most certainly do not,” she continued.

Hungarian NGOs say Article 7 vote is also about alerting other EU members

The European Parliament will vote next week on a proposal to trigger Article 7 against Hungary. Hungarian civil society leaders threw their weight behind the proposal on Wednesday (5 September), saying it was the last chance to defend democracy in Hungary.

Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, also welcomed the result, citing the Hungarian government’s “attempts to shut down civil society and independent voices in the media and academia”.

“MEPs across the political spectrum have taken a historic stand in defending the EU’s democratic values and the rights of its citizens,” Grabbe said.

Violations of press freedom and media pluralism were among the 12 major concerns cited in the resolution approved by Parliament. Hungary is ranked 73rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

“A dozen pro-government oligarchs now have dominant positions in most of the Hungarian media, including local dailies, national commercial TV channels, tabloids, news websites and political weeklies, while state radio and TV were turned into Orbán propaganda outlets long ago,” said Julie Majerczak, the Reporters Without Borders (RFS) representative in Brussels.

The RFS pointed towards increasingly declining media pluralism: “As a result, it is getting harder and harder for Hungary’s journalists to play the role that is essential in any properly-functioning democracy and for its citizens to get access to accurately reported news and information.”

“Today’s vote gives hope of putting European values back at the centre of EU’s agenda,” declared Leonie Martin, Vice President of JEF Europe.

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