By Seb Dance
The EU was founded 61 years ago in the ashes of a Europe that had been torn apart by division and war. The ideals at the heart of its founding were that there we achieve more together than apart and that there are certain inalienable rights and freedoms that cannot be ignored by governments reacting to popular sentiment. It is unquestionably the case that all across Europe, the resurrection of nationalism is threatening the latter of these two principles.
I was proud to join with S&D colleagues in the European Parliament to vote for the EU to take action against the government of Viktor Orban, whose own brand of nationalism acts as a lightning rod for all those opposed to Europe. By attacking its own citizens, and denying them fundamental rights – all in the name of defending the national culture – the government in Hungary is showing a blatant disregard for core human rights and the values of the EU. It is right that Parliament sends a message to Orban that such conduct is not compatible with EU membership. These values should be universal among democrats and not depend on your political affiliation.
However, it is deeply troubling that among the minority voting against the resolution were the majority of MEPs from the Conservative Party, the UK’s governing party. It is appalling that a supposedly moderate, centre right party of government should choose to ally itself with UKIP, the Front National and the rest of the far-right extremists in the ENF in supporting the Orban regime.
Consumed by its desperate attempts at salvaging a Brexit deal, the Conservatives shamefully turned a blind eye to a government riding roughshod over media and judicial independence, freedom of expression, and the rights of migrants. In their zeal for taking the UK out of the EU, they appear to no longer be interested in maintaining the common values of justice and freedom that underpin the EU.
The Conservative Party described the report before Parliament as ‘misguided, counter-productive’ and said that it ‘sets a dangerous precedent.’ This is, of course, nonsense- what truly sets a dangerous precedent is an apparently responsible party of government pandering to a man with no respect for the fundamental rights of his citizens, who believes that the use of xenophobic and antisemitic tropes is legitimate in public discourse.
In a letter to Theresa May thanking her for the support, Orban falsely referred to the resolution being used to target Hungary. This is simply not the case. The vote and any subsequent action are intended to target the regressive forces of his government, and to protect the people of Hungary from any further backsliding on their rights. The provisions of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty allow action to be taken to prevent one member state from negatively affecting its neighbours, but also to ensure European protections remain in place for the people of the state itself, so long as it remains a member.
It can be argued that the action taken does not go far enough, that Article 7 is something of a blunt instrument. The reality is, however, that the founding European law-makers never foresaw circumstances where a member state would regress in its values, much as they had not foreseen a member state wanting to leave the clearly advantageous membership of the EU. In both instances the procedures were not fully fleshed out because the people making the treaties at the time could not imagine that any European country would ever willingly go back to the bloodshed and chaos preceding the EU.
This is also far from the first time that the Conservative Party has pandered to the extreme right in its efforts to keep the Brexit show on the road. Boris Johnson regularly casually employed the language of war and conflict in the context of the Brexit negotiations- not least when he warned the EU about exacting ‘punishment beatings’ on the UK. Any hopes that the new Foreign Secretary would tone down the rhetoric were quickly dispelled recently with Jeremy Hunt’s appalling and indefensible comparison of the EU to a ‘Soviet prison’- prompting Nigel Farage to remark that Hunt was now ‘talking his language.’
Furthermore, a week after this vote, two of my colleagues, Julie Girling and Richard Ashworth, were formally expelled from the Conservative Party. Having lost the whip in the European Parliament for daring to speak the truth about Brexit, these decent and courageous parliamentarians were told there was no longer a place for them in the party. This stifling of debate and refusal to listen to moderate voices, combined with the political company they choose to keep, demonstrates how far the Conservatives have lurched to the right in order to satisfy the furthest extremes of their party.
Taken in isolation, their show of support for Viktor Orban is concerning enough, but it is just one example of the desperation of the Tories to salvage alliances and prevent a rebellion of the hard-line anti-European wing of their party. Brexit has poisoned the political discourse in the UK, and the actions of the Tory Party in offending our European partners and isolating themselves from colleagues in the political mainstream, has undermined trust and confidence in the U.K.
Viktor Orban is not Hungary, just like the Conservative Party is not the UK, but both are guilty of using dangerous rhetoric damaging to their own countries and to relations with their neighbours. The European Parliament was right to vote for the resolution and to condemn a regime that is weakening the independence of the judiciary, the Constitution, eliminating checks and balances, reducing media freedom, controlling universities, and purposefully discriminating against people because of their ethnicity or religion.
Conservative MEPs cynically chose not to stand with colleagues from across the mainstream political spectrum, and showed once again that their party cannot be trusted to protect the best interests of the UK and its closest allies.
Seb Dance is a British Member of the European Parliament, Deputy Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.
Opinions expressed in View articles are those of the author.