Is the EU after the Hungarian government?

Yes. Yesterday, the European Parliament voted in favour of triggering Article 7 against Hungary. The procedure passed with 448 in favour, 197 against, and 48 abstentions. As this was the first vote invoking Article 7 against Hungary, it will not immediately result in sanctions, but opens the way for sanctions to be imposed later.

What is Article 7?

Article 7 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty is a mechanism through which the EU legislature can punish, and even suspend, a member state. It is only triggered when a member of the bloc continually undermines the EU’s founding values of ‘human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities’. While a member state can have their rights suspended, they can’t be expelled.

Currently, only Article 7 (1) has been triggered, meaning a formal warning will be given to Hungary. Yet, if nothing changes, Article 7 (2) can impose sanctions and suspend rights.

This is the first time a resolution to trigger Article 7 has been debated in the EU parliament. The EU did launch Article 7 proceedings last year against Poland, but this was done by the European Council and there was no parliamentary vote on the issue. 

Why have relations between Hungary and the EU reached this point?

The triggering of Article 7 came about because of a report issued by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party Fidesz and its record in government. The report was deeply critical of Hungary’s electoral system, judicial independence, freedom of expression, press freedom, treatment of migrants, and raised concerns over corruption and attitudes towards minorities. The report clearly stated that the current political climate in Hungary posed a “systemic threat” to the EU’s principles.

However, Orban has stated that the procedure is part of an EU attack on Hungary for not accepting refugees under the EU settlement quotas. Although it is true that Hungary’s attitude toward refugees has caused conflict with the EU – Orban memorably referred to refugees as “Muslim invaders  and has said migration endangers the “sovereignty and cultural identity” of his country – the report reveals a wider set of concerns surrounding Hungary’s EU membership. 

How has Hungary responded?

During the EU debate, Orban declared that the “report does not show respect for the Hungarian people” and he vowed not to succumb to EU “blackmail” and to continue to “stop illegal immigration and defend [Hungary’s] rights — against you, too, if necessary”.

What will happen next?

As a majority of MEPs voted in favour of beginning the Article 7 process, a formal warning will now be issued to Hungary. The EU Council now has to consider if there is a risk posed to EU values. If they agree there is by a four-fifths majority, they must recommend actions to be taken.

The process for sanctions is different, and can only be triggered by unanimous agreement in the council or commission before reaching a two-third majority in the parliament. As a result of this process, Hungary’s rights could be suspended and there would be a real breakdown of relationships within the EU. However, it is not clear that this is what is being proposed at the moment and – as it requires unanimity – it would be unlikely to pass as Poland would likely veto it.