The European Parliament on Wednesday voted to punish Hungary for cracking down on democratic institutions, setting off a process that could ultimately lead to the suspension of the country’s voting rights in the bloc.
It is the first time that the parliament has launched the EU’s disciplinary process against a member state, known as Article 7, and it exposes the deep unease in parts of the Europe about the policies pursued by the country’s hardline prime minister Viktor Orban.
The vote comes nine months after the European Commission used its power to launch the same process against Poland. The rarely-invoked process is designed to prevent member states breaching the EU’s “core values”.
In an unexpected move, another anti-migrant leader, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, said on Tuesday that his party’s five European lawmakers would vote against Hungary.
In a private meeting with EPP members on Tuesday evening, Malta MEP Roberta Metsola told that Orban was defiant.”Prime Minister Orban was uncompromising,” said Metsola. “His reaction was an eye-opener for a number of MEPs who had previously remained silent in his regard. They stood up to say ‘no, we won’t tolerate you any more.'”
The Article 7 process is protracted, and no member state has ever been subjected to its ultimate sanction — the suspension of voting rights. This “nuclear option” would require the approval of all EU member states apart from the accused country, and it seems unlikely that Hungary or ally Poland — under fire for its overhaul of the judicial system — would support such a measure against the other.
In the ideological battles between European leaders, most notably over migration, Hungary has also made common cause with Italy. At a meeting with Orban last month, Italy’s hard line interior minister Matteo Salvini declared that the anti-migrant leaders were “walking the same path,” as opposed to the pro-migrant policies of French President Emmanuel Macron.
Orban’s fiery speech on Tuesday drew a strong riposte from EU officials. Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, hit back at Orban’s accusations, tweeting “To say that criticizing your government is a criticism of a nation or a people is the coward’s way out Mr Orban. Don’t try to deflect attention. If you make these laws then stand for them and we will debate them.”