By Jean Lambert
First and foremost the report on Hungary, drafted by my Green colleague Judith Sargentini and agreed by a qualified majority of the European Parliament, was the culmination of a tremendous amount of research and work. None of this was taken lightly and the findings are not directed at Hungary or the Hungarian people but at Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party.
The truth is that Viktor Orbán is leading Hungary away from the rule of law and EU values, all the while taking EU subsidies; in 2016 alone Hungary received €4.55 billion in EU funding. This is untenable.
Of the many anti-democratic actions Orbán has taken, which are well-documented and verified by the European Parliament report, since coming to power Orban's Government has launched an extraordinary attack on the free press. He has used a group of loyalist oligarchs to buy out independent newspapers. He has channelled all state advertising, including that of state-owned companies, into pro-government outlets. Investigative journalists have been bribed or blackmailed and this media has then been weaponised against opponents or to promote his Government’s views. The Jewish financier George Soros for example has been subjected to virulent anti-Semitic attacks, while migrants, Muslims and minorities are vilified.
Hungary's Prime Minister has also undermined the judiciary, launched a war against independent NGOs and made it a crime to help migrants. Parliament's report finds that he has used intimidation and opaque financing to win elections and is using public funds to wage a massive propaganda campaign against the European Union. The list could go on.
Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union reads: ‘the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to a minority’. Suffice is to say the current situation in Hungary is in such stark contrast to these values that oral rebukes are not enough to end its journey towards an autocratic, repressive state.
That is why a large majority of the European Parliament voted to trigger article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows the Council to suspend certain rights, including voting rights in the Council. This majority included many of Fidesz’s colleagues in the EPP, (traditionally a very pro-EU grouping) whose affiliation to the EPP is being seriously tested by Fidesz’s membership.
The majority of British Conservative MEPs voted against the report and thus supported Orbán. The argument used was on the basis that the EU is encroaching on the sovereignty of a Member State by taking steps against the Hungarian Government. Some of them may believe this. But given that the Hungarian Government has been the only country to break ranks and defend the UK Government’s antics in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, it certainly makes such a suggestion look dubious. Abstention would have signalled a different message.
Whatever the motivations however, it is another very low point for the Conservative Party. A party that could once consider itself principled has apparently defended a right-wing autocrat and in doing so has clearly lost its way.
Within the European Parliament this degeneration was largely hastened by David Cameron’s decision to remove the Conservatives from the European People's Party grouping, where mainstream centre-right parties are collected, and set up the European Conservatives and Reformists group. This ECR group now functions as a home for all the authoritarian parties of Europe including the Law and Justice Party of Poland, who could also face a vote on Article 7 in the near future. A delegation from the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) are in fact this week on a fact-finding mission to the country to gather insights into the latest developments as regards the rule of law in Poland.
This indicates clearly that other EU Member States have areas that need monitoring and improving in terms of upholding EU values of equality, democracy and the rule of law. Indeed there were recently also visits of the LIBE Committee to Malta and Slovakia, investigating issues around corruption and the murder of journalists. However acknowledging that other EU countries also need to do better in living of up to Article 2 of the TEU does not preclude acting against those that so flagrantly flout the values we espouse.
As an ambitious and unique venture with its origins as a peace project, the EU has historically had a certain moral authority on the world stage: we weaken that authority when we are not willing to question ourselves and our actions. When working with third countries we try to impress the importance of upholding human rights, and have built commitments to rule of law into our trade agreements. We stress that these are universal values and are for the benefit of the people and the country.
The extensive report on the situation in Hungary, based on independent and verified evidence, shows we cannot afford not to act. Failing to uphold those standards within the Union not only threatens the Union itself but also its role and reputation globally.
Jean Lambert is London's Green Party Member of the European Parliament
Opinions expressed in View articles are those of the author.