Among other things, the resolution called on the government to withdraw the anti-NGO bill, marking a victory for Liberties. The resolution also activated rule 83 of the parliament’s rules of procedure, which could end with Hungary facing sanctions under the Article 7 mechanism. This would be the first time that Article 7 has ever been used.

What is rule 83?

Article 7 of the EU treaty allows an EU government to be sanctioned when it seriously violates the EU’s fundamental values. But it is a long road before governments can face the prospect of punishment. Everything gets decided by national governments in the Council of the EU. Article 7(1) allows governments to decide that there is a ‘clear risk’ of the EU’s values being violated. Article 7(2) allows governments to decide that there is currently a serious violation of the EU’s values in progress. And Article 7(3) allows governments to vote on sanctions.

Article 7 could be activated by the Commission, a group of governments, or by the European Parliament. That is, each of these players has the power to put Hungary on the Council’s agenda, formally invoking Article 7. And this is where rule 83 comes in. Rule 83 of the European Parliament’s rule of procedure sets down the process that would allow MEPs to refer Hungary to the Council under the Article 7 procedure.

What’s next?

The European Parliament carries out most of its work through committees that deal with particular policy areas. Rule 83 requires the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to come up with a draft resolution that will formally trigger Article 7. This draft resolution will then be voted on by the parliament as a whole. To pass, two-thirds of MEPs in the vote on the day would have to give their approval. Judging by the way voting went yesterday, it will be a close call.

If the vote does pass, it would activate Article 7(1). That means that national governments in the Council would have a debate on Hungary and then take a vote on whether they considered that EU values were at risk of being seriously violated. Before sanctions would be possible, governments would have to vote on Article 7(2). This is the tricky part because that requires unanimity among governments, and the Polish government, which has also been undermining the rule of law, would probably protect the Hungarian government.

So what?

The resolution passed with an impressive majority: 393 in favour, 221 against, 64 abstentions. The MEPs from the Hungarian government’s party, Fidesz, belong to the largest political group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP). So far the EPP has largely shielded Fidesz from criticism in the parliament, either by blocking resolutions or watering them down. The vote shows how deep divisions in the EPP have become, as more and more EPP MEPs become uncomfortable with being associated with a government that shows continued disregard for rights, democracy and the rule of law. EPP MEPs who wanted to speak out on Hungary managed to get permission for a free vote and almost 70 voted in favour of the resolution, with around 40 abstaining.

Even if national governments never make it to sanctioning the Hungarian government, life could become difficult in Brussels. Governments and MEPs have to work with peers from other countries to avoid being outvoted when negotiating on new laws and policies. Being branded a rights violator is likely to alienate potential allies, which would weaken Hungary’s influence in EU politics.

What did Liberties do?

On 11th April, Liberties launched a petition through Avaaz.org calling on the European Parliament to adopt a resolution urging the Hungarian government to withdraw a bill that would brand NGOs as foreign agents. Together with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, we spoke to different political groups, including the leadership of the EPP, to explain the situation in Hungary. We also persuaded NGOs in Brussels to include our call to the European Parliament in a public statement backed by over 500 European NGOs. Then we produced a legal opinion, together with the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, explaining how the anti-NGO bill, if passed, would violate EU law. And finally, we made detailed recommendations to parliamentarians on what to include in their resolution.

How did we get here?

Since coming to power in 2010, Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary has been taking democracy apart piece by piece. He has taken over public media and silenced criticism from almost all major private media companies with the threat of fines, punitive taxes or through closure. He has protected his government from legal challenges by pushing through a new Constitution, packing the Constitutional Court with his political allies, and taking away some of its biggest powers. And all the while he has continued to line the pockets of his friends at the top of Hungary’s business world through a deeply corrupt political system.

In its latest move, the Hungarian government adopted legislation aimed at closing the Central European University, and then turned its attention to NGOs working on human rights, the environment and anti-corruption. The government has proposed a Russian-style anti-NGO law that would force NGOs receiving more that EUR 23,300 per year in donations from abroad to publicly label themselves as funded from abroad. The government has already begun stigmatizing these NGOs by referring to them as ‘agent organisations’. Orbán’s attack on NGOs is an attempt to silence one of the few remaining voices able to criticise his laws and policies when they violate European human rights rules.

NGOs are vital to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. They help to make sure that governments don’t break the law and that they respect the rights of their peoples. They keep the public informed about how the authorities are using their powers and spending public money. And they help the public organise to speak to their political representatives with one voice.