EU Parliament votes to trigger Article 7 sanctions procedure against Hungary
In a tense vote, a majority of EU lawmakers backed a motion that opens the door to sanctions against Hungary. Viktor Orban's government is accused of silencing media, targeting NGOs and removing independent judges.
Members of the European Parliament voted to censure the Hungarian government on Wednesday for eroding democracy and failing to uphold fundamental European Union values.
The measure to trigger Article 7 sanctions procedures garnered the necessary majority needed to pass, with 448 voting in favor of the motion, 197 against and 48 abstentions. The move means that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government could eventually lose its EU voting rights.
Prior to the vote, it was unclear how many members of the conservative European People's Party (EPP) bloc, the largest political group in the European Parliament, would support the measure. Although Orban's Fidesz party is part of the EPP, several of the lawmakers voted against their Hungarian allies.
Hungary vows to challenge decision
Shortly after the vote, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto slammed the decision as a form of "petty revenge" by "pro-immigration politicians" against Budapest for its tough immigration policies.
Budapest is also looking into legal ways to challenge the measure. Szijjarto argued that the abstaining votes should have been included in the count as well, which would have changed the outcome.
Juncker: 'I've given up' on reasoning with Orban
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who gave a speech in parliament before the vote, told DW that he had "given up" on trying to talk with Orban about his hardline policies, saying "there are big differences" between the two of them.
"I constantly explain to Viktor Orban that this radical rhetoric he's directing towards Europe helps neither him nor Europe," he told DW.
What the vote means: The measure does not immediately penalize Hungary, but it opens the door for sanctions to be imposed. Wednesday's vote also means that a formal warning will be sent to Hungary for violating the EU's values.
What is Article 7? Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty opens a path for sanctions against a member state and a temporary loss of EU Council voting rights. The mechanism is triggered when one of the bloc's members violates the vales of "human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities."
EU-Hungary tensions: Speaking to European lawmakers on Tuesday, Orban said the EU was targeting Hungary for refusing to take in refugees under an EU-wide resettlement quota scheme. Although Brussels and Budapest have repeatedly clashed over immigration and refugee policy, the vote on Wednesday addressed broader concerns with the state of democracy and rule of law in Hungary. A report by MEP Judith Sargentini, which triggered the Article 7 vote, found that Orban's attacks on independent media, academics, the judiciary, migrants and refugees and the rights of minorities pose a "systemic threat" to the EU's fundamental principles.
Historic vote: The vote was the first time that the EU Parliament considered launching the Article 7 sanctions process against a member state. The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, launched Article 7 proceedings against Poland last year over its judicial reforms.
What happens next: The motion will now pass to the leaders of the EU's 28 member states for approval. However, a unanimous vote is required to suspend Hungary's voting rights and launch sanctions — a move that is likely to be blocked by Poland.
"We don't see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders," Orban said in a recent interview with German daily Bild newspaper. The 54-year-old prime minister of Hungary added: "We believe that a large number of Muslims inevitably leads to parallel societies, because Christian and Muslim society will never unite." Multiculturalism, he said, "is only an illusion."
When asked by Bild whether it was fair for Germany to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants while Hungary accepted none, Orban responded: "The difference is, you wanted the migrants, and we didn't." Migration, he said, threatens the "sovereignty and cultural identity" of Hungary.
It was not the first time the Hungarian leader has framed migration as a problem for his country. In 2016, he said that Hungary "does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future." He added: "for us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it.”
Orban has repeatedly criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her decision to allow over a million migrants into Germany in the summer of 2015. Orban told Bild in early 2016: "If you take masses of non-registered immigrants from the Middle East into your country, you are importing terrorism, crime, antisemitism, and homophobia."
Orban has also repeatedly criticized the EU for trying to get member states to share refugees based on national quotas. In a 2015 interview with POLITICO, he suggested the bloc's leaders instead focus more on strengthening the EU's external border. In the same interview, he said: "Of course it’s not accepted, but the factual point is that all the terrorists are basically migrants."
Orban has found allies in other right-wing governments in eastern Europe such as Poland that also oppose the EU's refugee policies. In an interview with Spanish TV channel Intereconomia in 2015, Orban raised fears about integrating Muslim migrants in the EU when he said: "What sort of Europe do we want to have? Parallel societies? Muslim communities living together with the Christian community?"