What is the vote about?
MEPs are going to have to decide whether to set in motion a procedure that could eventually end up with the Hungarian government facing sanctions from the EU. MEPs will vote on whether to approve the draft resolution and report on the 11th of September. If the vote passes, then it would activate Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. The parliament itself will not be voting to sanction Hungary's government - it doesn't have that power. If the vote passes and the resolution is adopted, this would just put the situation in Hungary formally onto the agenda of the Council of the EU. The Council is where ministers from each EU country meet. If Hungary is placed on their agenda, governments will have to discuss the situation and eventually decide if they also agree that there is a serious problem in Hungary.
What are the European Parliament's concerns about Hungary?
This will be the European Parliament's sixth resolution on Hungary since Prime Minister Orban led his Fidesz party to power in 2010. This number is very high. Traditionally, human rights problems serious enough to attract the European Parliament's attention have only existed in countries outside the EU, like Zimbabwe, Russia or Myanmar. With the recent exception of Poland, the situation in an EU country rarely gets bad enough for the European Parliament to feel the need to pass a resolution.
The texts of the draft resolution and the report that accompanies it lay out a number of serious concerns about developments in Hungary since 2010. These can be summarised as follows:
- The government controls public debate. Public broadcast media and privately owned media is mostly government-friendly. Privately owned media companies are mostly either owned by friends of the government or refrain from criticising the government for fear of losing revenue they get from government through advertising contracts, or for fear of being fined for breaking very vaguely worded regulations. This means that most of the news the public consumes is one-sided in favour of the government. The public is fed conspiracy theories about plots by NGOs and the EU to encourage migration into Hungary and alarmist stories that asylum seekers are trying to destroy the nation, while details of government corruption scandals go unreported in all but a few independent media outlets.
- The government has made it extremely difficult for the courts to keep government powers in check. The government sacked most of the country's senior judges, packed the Constitutional Court with political allies, took away the Constitutional Court's power to check whether new laws are in line with civil liberties standards, and has power to discipline judges, move cases between judges and appoint and remove top judges. Because most ordinary courts are still behaving independently, the government has now created a new court to deal with questions about elections, the right to public protest and corruption.
- The government has fixed the electoral rules in such a way that makes it very difficult for Fidesz to lose elections. Electoral boundaries have been re-drawn in favour of the ruling party, the government used public money to fund public information advertisements that carried the ruling party's electoral campaign messages, and most of the media consumed by the public favours the governing party.
- The government is deeply corrupt. Large government contracts are routinely awarded to government allies that overcharge for services and products and pocket public money, including funds from the EU.
- The government has restricted a broad range of civil liberties and basic freedoms. These include: attempts to close down the Central European University and shut down NGOs, preventing refugees from seeking asylum and refusing to clamp down on racism against Roma, Muslims and Jews or domestic violence.
How was the resolution and the report written?
The European Parliament does most of its work through committees of MEPs. Each committee specialises on a different issue like trade or energy. The committee responsible for writing the resolution and report on Hungary is the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE, for short). The committee appoints an MEP (known as a rapporteur) to be in charge of researching and writing the text. The MEP leading on the Hungary report is Judith Sargentini, an MEP from the Green group. Each of the other political groups (from other left, centrist and right-wing political groups) all appoint their own 'shadow' rapporteurs. Most of the work is done by the rapporteur, but to make sure that the report doesn't get voted down by the other political groups, the rapporteur will meet regularly with all the other political groups and try to agree on a text that everyone is happy with. For this resolution and report the rapporteur also met with rights activists, experts from universities and think tanks, Hungarian government representatives and experts from other international organisations like the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
The report was voted through the LIBE committee by 37 votes in favour to 19 against. Four other committees in the European Parliament also wrote their own documents on Hungary, known as 'opinions', focusing on different questions, like the treatment of women, free media, and universities. These opinions, which all agreed that Article 7 should be triggered, were also all passed with comfortable majorities.
The report's findings are based mainly on reports from expert bodies working for international organisations. All EU governments are part of these international organisations and gave their permission for their experts to monitor standards of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Many of these bodies have been doing this job for over 50 years, and the experts that work in them are nominated and approved by governments. These include several expert bodies from the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. It's simply not credible to argue that the information in the resolution and report is inaccurate or biased.
What are the chances of the resolution passing?
This resolution is special because in order to trigger Article 7, it has to be voted through by a two-thirds majority of MEPs voting - rather than just the normal majority.
MEPs from Orban's Fidesz party belong to the European Peoples Party (EPP) group - the biggest single group in the European Parliament. Until recently, the EPP group always voted as a bloc against resolutions criticising the Hungarian government out of loyalty to their member, Fidesz. But the last time the European Parliament took a vote on Hungary in 2017, this changed. As Orban has kept going with dismantling democracy, more MEPs in the EPP group have become uncomfortable. By the time the last resolution on Hungary was voted in 2017, the EPP group was so split that the political leadership allowed their MEPs a free vote. That is, they were allowed to vote however they felt individually rather than follow an official EPP position. The EPP split three ways. Of the 200 EPP MEPs who voted, 67 supported the resolution, 93 opposed it and 40 abstained. Overall, 58% of MEPs in the European Parliament voted in favour of the resolution.
If the resolution is to pass next week, EPP MEPs who opposed or abstained in the 2017 vote will need to have changed their minds since then. It's possible to get a clue of whether MEPs from the EPP have changed their position by looking at how they voted in the votes that took place in the five parliamentary committees during the preparation of the current resolution.
Altogether, 42 MEPs from the EPP were involved in the votes across these five committees. A total of 10 EPP MEPs moved towards supporting Article 7 either by voting in favour (6) or abstaining (4) where before they had voted against or abstained or not voted at all. But there were also 6 MEPs moving in the opposite direction voting against (2) or abstaining (4) where they had previously voted in favour of the 2017 resolution. Of course, this only gives us a glimpse of some of the thinking in the EPP. EPP MEPs from the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Luxembourg have been increasingly critical of Fidesz and EPP MEPs from Poland, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Greece and Malta voted mostly in favour of the 2017 resolution. But apart from Poland, which has a large population, these smaller countries only have a handful of EPP MEPs each. For the vote to pass next week, EPP members from Germany, Italy, Spain and France (which have much larger numbers) will have to decide to support it. And as yet they have not made their position known.
Many in the EPP may still be inclined to support Fidesz because they are unsure of what Orban will do after the next European Parliament elections in March. The EPP expects to lose seats, and if it supports the activation of Article 7, Orban might be inclined to retaliate by moving his MEPs to another political group, further weakening the EPP. Orban recently met the Northern League's Mateo Salvini, who is deputy prime minister of Italy, which does not belong to the EPP group. This may be a veiled threat to the EPP that he will form a new political group with other authoritarian populists if the EPP does not continue to shield him from accountability.
And there are other complicating factors. Some of Romania's centre-left MEPs (who would ordinarily support the resolution) may decide not to support the activation of Article 7 for fear that Romania might be next in line. These MEPs belong to the current ruling party that has been clamping down on anti-corruption protestors and NGOs that want to stop the government weakening corruption laws and the judiciary. And some MEPs may simply not turn up as they are already busy with election campaigns.
Why is this a big deal?
This may not sound very exciting but before this year, Article 7 had never even been used. European governments prefer to keep relations between them as smooth as possible and don't want to risk creating anger or resentment by picking over each other’s human rights records. It's not that they don't talk about each other's rights records. They do, and it can get messy - but they do it in other venues like the United Nations, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. And they do it far away from the EU so that it doesn't interfere with their relatively smooth cooperation on things like free trade, environmental protection and the fight against organised crime. But as basic freedoms are coming under serious threat from authoritarian populist governments in Hungary and Poland, many EU governments have started raising uncomfortable questions.
What is Article 7?
Article 7 was created as an emergency procedure to safeguard basic protections for democracy and civil liberties. It can only be used if a country is seriously and systematically breaking the rules that keep a modern democracy working properly. Things like free and independent media, independent courts with power to stop the government abusing its powers, and rules protecting minorities and basic freedoms. The EU has tried using political pressure and legal procedures to force Orban to change course, but none of this has had a real impact. Orban's tactic has tended to be to take three steps forward, and only one step back when placed under international pressure, leaving many damaging reforms in place.
The Article 7 procedure is long. It involves at least three votes at three different stages in the Council. Getting to the point where sanctions can be taken against a government requires all governments (apart from the government under examination) to agree. Article 7 was triggered for the first time in the EU's history recently, when the Commission put Poland on the Council's agenda because of the government's take-over of the courts in that country. After several meetings to discuss Poland, ministers still have not taken a formal decision on Poland. Don't bring popcorn. Bring a sleeping bag.
A sanction under Article 7 can be any measure that takes away a right that a country gets when it joins the EU. The example cited most often is that a government could lose its voting rights, which would stop it having a say on which laws the EU passes. But governments get many privileges when they join the EU including EU funding, free trade across European borders, the ability to move money and buy and sell services anywhere in the EU, not to mention being able to take part in the hundreds of meetings where laws and policies are decided.
Orban has taken Hungary to the point of elected autocracy. The state he has created no longer fits within the model of democracy that was agreed on among European countries in the 1950s. Before a country can join the EU, it has to prove that it has guarantees in place to ensure a properly functioning democracy, with independent courts that can keep the government in check and allow all parts of society to take part in civic and political life while protecting basic freedoms. These guarantees were put in place to prevent the re-emergence of authoritarian states and the horrors of the Second World War. The evidence against Hungary's government is objective, accurate and overwhelming. Nothing else the EU has thrown at Orban has worked. Voting in favour of the resolution and report should be a no-brainer. Even the realpolitik doesn't add up: Orban cannot remain loyal to the EPP while courting the group's opponents in power in Poland and Italy.