“I’m very worried about the individual rights of Hungarians," said Judith Sargentini, the rapporteur of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee member (LIBE) and the author of the aforementioned report.
Her report, due to be voted on in the LIBE Committee in May before landing before a Plenary Session in September 2018, was prepared in support of the EP’s discussions over whether to trigger the EU’s rule of law procedure, based on Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, against Hungary.
The report was requested during a plenary session in May 2017, where the majority of parliamentarians agreed that the EP should examine if it should recommend the initiation of the Article 7 procedure. This procedure allows EU governments to take action against another member state when its government is in serious violation of the EU's fundamental values.
The EP LIBE report put together by Sargentini is building upon four opinion reports from the Woman’s Rights, Culture and Education, Budgetary Control and the Constitutional Affairs Committees. The latter two already concluded their opinions and both call for triggering the Article 7 procedure, for the first time in the history of the Union.
The main LIBE report is based on her research, interviews and the input of the Venice Committee of the Council of Europe, the Lanzarote Committee of the Council of Europe, the United Nation, and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
Telling friends the truth
As Sargentini, a Dutch Green MEP, told the press after the LIBE meeting on Thursday, 12 March, a government that is sure of itself is a government that invites critics; that is how the European Union works – a system based on common values.
Articulating her concerns about the procedure, however, she added:
"What is painful to realize is that we depend on external analysis, we as Europe shy away from criticizing our own community. We are among friends, we need to be able to tell the truth too."
The report touches upon the issues of the independence of the judiciary,functioning of the constitutional system, corruption and conflict of interests, freedom of expression and academic freedom, religious freedom and the freedom of association among others and concludes that Hungarians even though being citizens of the European Union cannot rely on the same basic rights as citizens of other EU countries.
Fidesz MEP and long-time member of the LIBE committee Kinga Gál, in her reaction to the hearing, complained about the fact that the Sargentini report was leaked to the press, and summed up the report as an attempt to back failed opposition and failed NGOs.
Gál highlighted that opposition is not prosecuted in Hungary, journalists are not murdered and, to her, this report feels like a court case built on long-closed court cases and long-solved political disputes.
On the issue of the timing of the report, Sargentini said she originally intended to present the report in March, but postponed it to after the elections, since she did not want this report to be used as a political tool ahead of it.
She underlined that, as the author of the report, her goal is to be as unbiased and objective as possible, since the report is a legal analysis of policies and laws.
On a practical level, Sargentini listed concerns related to media closures, worrying trends in women’s rights, raging intolerance against Roma and minorities, problems around treatment of migrant children and the chilling effects of laws like the latest Stop Soros proposal, which targets critical civil society groups.
Frans Engel, from the European People’s Party (EPP), to which Fidesz belongs, said it may be difficult – especially after eight years of questionable attempts – but the EP has to try to appreciate the current atmosphere. An atmosphere in which Orbán chose a path that would preclude a repeat of the the 2002 fiasco, when his party lost the elections, and allow an "anything goes" approach in order to win this election and keep power. That is something that has no place in the EU, the Luxembourger MEP concluded.
Parallel EU tracks
Along with the parliamentarians' work, there are currently three highly political court cases that are relevant to infringement procedures by the European Commission.
The anti-NGO law was referred to the CJEU following Hungary's failure to address Commission concerns expressed in two earlier stages of the procedure: the letter of formal notice sent by the Commission in July 2017, and the reasoned opinion issued last October.
The second case is about the migrant quotas, which Hungary strenuously opposed, while the third case regards the higher education law targeting the Central European University. These two case are also before the Court of Justice.