EU lawmakers urge pressure on Hungary to respect rule of law

Brussels: A group of EU lawmakers called on member states’ governments on Friday to punish Hungary’s Viktor Orban for damaging democracy at home by moving one step closer to suspending Budapest’s vote in the bloc, a letter signed by the lawmakers showed.

One hundred and twenty of the European Parliament’s 705 members singed the letter after Orban blocked a review of the bloc’s budget in December that included granting Ukraine 50 billion euros ($55 billion) in new financial aid through 2027.

Last month’s tense summit of EU leaders – during which Orban also let the other 26 countries advance Kyiv’s membership bid despite his public opposition to such a move – capped another year of evermore bitter feuds between the bloc and Budapest over the independence of Hungarian courts, corruption and freedom of minorities, non-governmental organisations and education.

“The letter demonstrates a clear willingness in the Parliament to launch Article 7.2 TEU,” the author of the letter, Finland’s MEP, Petri Sarvamaa, said, referring to the next step in the disciplinary steps described in article 7 of the EU treaty for countries not respecting the rule of law.

“But above all, it highlights the urgency of addressing Viktor Orban’s actions,” said Sarvamaa, who is from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest faction in the current European legislature.

Speaking on public radio, Balazs Hidveghi, an MEP from Orban’s Fidesz party, dismissed the letter as yet another attack by Hungary’s critics.

“Our adversaries, who have been smearing Hungary with lies for years and are trying to make our life more difficult in Brussels… have launched another attack,” he said.

The European Parliament wants to adopt a resolution on Hungary next week as its main political families are dissatisfied with the European Commission’s decision in December to unfreeze billions in EU financial support to Budapest.

The money has been suspended for years over concerns that Orban is undermining democratic checks and balances.

The Commission decision last month was seen as part of a deal to make Budapest agree to the money for Kyiv but many MEPs argue Budapest has not really addressed rule of law concerns.

In power for more than 13 years, Orban has clashed with the EU over the rights of migrants, LGBT community, freedom of courts and academics, with the Commission and international watchdogs lambasting Budapest for damaging the rule of law.

The Friday letter calls for the EU to take another step in a punitive procedure called “Article 7” and launched against Hungary in 2018. The lengthy process could eventually culminate in suspending Hungary’s voting rights in the bloc.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine two year ago, Orban has also emerged as loud critic of EU’s sanctions against Moscow and the bloc’s financial and military support for Ukraine. EU leaders have to deal with obstruction from Hungary each time they want to adopt a new measure to help Kyiv.

They will meet again in Brussels on Feb. 1 to have another go at the 50 billion euro support package for Ukraine. If Hungary’s vote in the EU were to be suspended as a result of the Article 7 process, aid for Ukraine could be agreed much more easily.

Taking away Hungary’s EU vote has until recently been unrealistic, because Orban had the backing of nationalist allies in Poland.

But Warsaw’s support is no longer there. An election last November brought to power pro-European Prime Minister Donald Tusk who has vowed to restore the rule of law at home and has made supporting Ukraine a key priority.