EU accused of foot-dragging over rule-of-law threat in Hungary

Prime minister Viktor Orban's government boycotts debate in European Parliament

A demonstration against recent legislative measures introduced by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban,  in Budapest. Over the past months thousands of Hungarians have taken to the streets to call for Mr Orban’s resignation. Photograph:  Chris McGrath/Getty Images

A demonstration against recent legislative measures introduced by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, in Budapest. Over the past months thousands of Hungarians have taken to the streets to call for Mr Orban’s resignation. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

 

The EU is failing to tackle a growing threat to democracy and the rule of law in Hungary, according to critics in the European Parliament of the country’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban.

Mr Orban’s government boycotted Wednesday’s debate in Brussels, at which he was lambasted over his hard-line stance against refugees and migrants, NGOs, Budapest’s liberal Central Europe University (CEU) and on other issues.

Several MEPs also chided the European Council of member-state governments for failing to act on the European Parliament’s request last year to start so-called article 7 proceedings against Hungary, which could strip Budapest of its EU voting rights for breaching the bloc’s core values.

Judith Sargentini, the Dutch Greens MEP whose report led to the unprecedented vote against Hungary in September, told parliament that “things have only got worse” since then.

“CEU has to leave to Vienna . . . homelessness was made a punishable crime and a new administrative court is being set up overseen by the justice minister,” she said of recent developments in Hungary.

Given refuge

Ms Sargentini also noted that former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski – an ally of Mr Orban – had quickly been given refuge in Hungary from a corruption conviction in his homeland; that a conglomerate of some 450 pro-Orban media outlets had received swift official approval; and that new overtime rules dubbed a “slave law” by critics had come into force despite street protests.

She accused Hungary of “stalling” over the rule-of-law inquiry by “flooding their colleagues in the [European] Council with paperwork”, and urged Romania to “start a real process” on the issue during its current term as holder of the EU presidency.

“I continue to appreciate that you voted for my report. But what have you been doing since? Where is your sense of responsibility?” she asked fellow MEPs.

The like-minded Hungarian and Polish governments have pledged to shield each other from punishment under article 7 and there is little appetite in the European People’s Party (EPP) – which includes Fine Gael – to sanction Mr Orban’s Fidesz party before European elections in May.

‘Witch trial’

MEPs from Fidesz and other right-wing parties used the debate to defend Mr Orban, who earlier dismissed it as a “witch trial” and “campaign event” for what he calls leftist, pro-immigration politicians allegedly backed by George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist whom he accuses of trying to destroy “traditional” Europe.

“In five months these people will all be gone: this model is going out of production, and a new parliament is on its way,” Mr Orban said.

Hungarian officials have also urged Frans Timmermans, the Party of European Socialists’ lead candidate for the May elections, to step down as European Commission vice-president until after the ballot, to ensure that he does not use the post for campaign efforts.

During the debate, Mr Timmermans said CEU’s departure from Hungary due to government pressure was “unprecedented in the history of the European Union”.

“It is sad and very worrying that this can happen in the EU, despite the commission’s pending infringement procedure and clear warnings from many, many stakeholders,” he added.