By Alex Mayer
Being an MEP carries with it a responsibility to uphold core values of democracy, freedom and fairness. This responsibility stretches from one’s own constituents, all the way across to the democratic interests of the peoples of each European country. Recently in a vote in the European Parliament the resolve of MEPs was put to the test: do we sit back and ignore the clear violations of the Orbán government in Hungary, or take a stand and censure an administration that has shown contempt for our shared values?
The vote was won overwhelmingly by 448 – 197, but as the sole Labour representative in my region, I was the only East of England MEP to back the Sargentini report (backing Article 7).
Unsurprisingly UKIP voted against, but I was deeply disappointed that the Conservative MEPs joined them too.
While this vote was not one that related directly back to the UK, it was important as it sent a message from a cluster of democratic nations to one whose leadership continues to take its people down a dark path.
For many, both inside and outside the UK, there was a palpable sense of shock that British Conservative MEPs could make a link between defending Orbán and Brexit, pushing a narrative that the vote was a plebiscite on the rights of a nation to not be dictated to by the EU.
To be honest, I think the Conservatives underestimated the strength of feeling, as well as media interest, on the matter. Indeed several British government ministers were quickly wheeled out for TV interviews to untangle the knots in which the Conservatives had tied themselves.
In my view there was no excuse for sitting on our hands, as action must be taken against Hungary for its repeated and blatant breaches of European values over nearly a decade.
In my own constituency, the issue of the curtailment of academic freedom in Hungary has caused great concern. The Central European University (CEU) enjoys close links with the University of Cambridge and I joined Cambridge students and academics protesting against the Orbán government’s attacks on the CEU back in May 2016.
The Hungarian PM has presided over a regime attacking the independence of the judiciary - forcing more liberal and long serving judges into early retirement - and has effectively shut down an opposition newspaper and NGOs, while making life incredibly difficult for those who oppose his rule.
The CEU in particular has been the focus of so much attention because of its links to criticisms of Orbán and the funding it receives from George Soros.
It is also not just the European Union that is concerned about Orbán. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, one of the world’s largest bodies promoting human rights, press freedom and fair elections, complained that the recent Hungarian elections contained “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing”. The UN has censured Hungary for attacks against NGOs working on civil and disability rights and freedom of expression.
Article 7 is one of the harshest sanctions available to the European Union and compels a nation to return to the road of democracy, citizens’ rights and freedom of the press or face political and economic consequence, but it is important to note that reaching this point was a culmination of actions from the EU and not the starting point.
Many organisations and people, including myself who wrote to the Commission on the matter, have been highlighting Hungary’s transgressions over a number of years.
Orbán has been given ample time to hear the concerns and change direction, but he has refused. A day ahead of the vote he addressed the European Parliament. As someone sitting in the Chamber to hear him speak, I am convinced that actions not only words are now the way forward.
Sadly, I would argue that those in my own country, who attempted to make this matter a proxy of the Brexit debate at home, have failed miserably.
It is frankly shameful that the Conservatives were the only ruling party in Western Europe that voted to support Orbán and at a time when my nation needs friends more than ever before, this is hardly a successful strategy to make friends and influence people.
The British government has hard questions to answer if it believes Orbán’s actions are compatible with British values, let alone European ones.
Mr Orbán wrote to the UK Conservatives saying the vote would be a verdict against people of Hungary. Again, I disagree. This is about his government which should focus on the Hungarian people’s real problems: a deteriorating education system, the lack of press freedom and rampant corruption.
I am pleased the European Parliament has acted decisively to stop this drift into authoritarianism. For years, Orbán has been eroding the foundations of democracy in Hungary and attacking the fundamental freedoms of Hungarian citizens. Luckily Tory votes were not in the end decisive as enough is enough.
Alex Mayer is a British Member of the European Parliament representing the Labour Party.
Opinions expressed in View articles are those of the author.