Orbán divides EPP ahead of crucial European Parliament vote

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on 11 September 2018. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

The European Parliament held a highly incendiary debate about Hungary on Tuesday (11 September), ahead of a vote on whether to trigger Article 7 against the country, exposing serious internal divisions in the European Peoples’ Party, which includes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party.

MEPs in Strasbourg debated a report by MEP Judith Sargentini (Greens, Netherlands) on whether Article 7 should be activated over the existence of a serious breach by Hungary of the EU’s core values.

Orbán was given seven minutes of speaking time, which he respected. In his statement, he criticised Sargenini’s report for being “not clear on facts”, full of misinterpretations and insulting to his nation, which he said he would defend.

He said he knew there would be a majority in favour of the report, but added that it would be the condemnation of a nation that has contributed to Europe’s history, and stood against the USSR for freedom and democracy.

It is beyond doubt that Sargentini’s report will gather more than 50% of the votes on Wednesday. However, a two-thirds majority is needed for the Council to be obliged to take over. Ultimately, the decision will be taken by the Council with a four-fifths majority.

Orbán also said he would continue to defend his country’s borders from migrants. “This is the first case when a community attacks its own border guards. This country is not going to be a country of migrants”, he said, as translated.

The Hungarian Prime Minister conceded he and others in the EU had a different vision of Christianity, family and migration. But if we want EU to be united in diversity, there is no reason for excluding Hungary from the EU decision making, he said.

Despite rumours that the Austrian Presidency of the Council would not participate in the debate, Karoline Edtstadler, state secretary in the Austrian interior ministry, took the floor and said there could be no compromise on democracy and rule of law.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that “sadly”, the EU executive shared the report’s conclusions in many respects. With respect to Hungary, he said, the Commission was already using “other instruments”, such as infringement procedures, but  would not hesitate to take “further measures” if needed.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, who finds himself caught between the different factions in his political force, said he wanted to be a “bridge-builder”.

Weber said that in terms of the freedom of the media, the situation in Slovakia, where journalist Jan Kuciak was murdered in February, was worse than in Hungary. Slovakia has a Socialist-led government.

Dozens of MEPs took the floor, although the hemicycle remained largely empty during the debate. Unsurprisingly, the group that offered most backing to Orbán was the European Conservatives and Reformists, where the UK Tories and the Polish MEPs from PiS sit.

As expected, MEPs from S&D, the Green group and the leftist GUE/NGL were highly critical of Orbán. Conversely, he was called a “hero” by Harald Vilimsky (Freedom Party, Austria), as well as by Mara Bizotto (Salvini’s Lega Nord), while UKIP’s Nigel Farage exclaimed “Come and join the Brexit club! You will love it!”

Orban counterattacks critics and EPP

Farage also compared the EU with the Soviet Union from the times of Leonid Brezhnev, when the expression “limited sovereignty” gained notoriety.

MEP Nicolas Bay from Marine Le Pen’s party told Orbán he was “the real defender of civilisation values, facing Merkel and Macron who want more immigration”.

The EPP was obviously divided. Roberta Mezzola (EPP, Malta) spoke of EU values being under serious threat as in Hungary and said she would vote for the Sargentini report. Frank Engel (EPP, Luxembourg) told Orbán he was behaving “like the head of a sect”. “I don’t want to become part of a sect, we will go vote for something else”, he said.

Sean Kelly (EPP, Ireland) told Orbán his constituents were questioning his party’s continuing presence in EPP. Indeed, as the European elections are getting close, many EPP politicians find it impossible to defend Fidesz’ place in the centre-right political family.

Speaking at the end of the debate, Orbán tried to hit back at some critics, suggesting that corruption in their countries was as bad as in his own, and that anti-Semitism was worse in Brussels because this is where Judaic institutions have been targeted. He also seemed to hit at Juncker for having attended an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth.

The Brief – Juncker meets Karl Marx

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will next week deliver a speech at an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. The gesture is likely to provide some ammunition to lovers of controversy.

Orbán also said that the EPP “dances to the tune of socialists and liberals”, adding that this would not be the case in the future. “We will determine our own cause,” he said.

His final words were that the report was not a condemnation of the Hungarian government but of the Hungarian nation.

Timmermans used strong language in his final comments.

“To say criticising the government amounts criticising a nation or a people, frankly speaking, Mr Orbán, that’s the coward’s way out”, he said, adding “don’t try to deflect the attention from criticism of the action of your government by saying that those who criticise the government attack your nation or your people. That’s the coward’s way out”, he repeated, triggering applause.

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