A historical precedent
As the European Parliament is in Plenary session between the 10-13th of September they are voting on many issues, drafts and legislative texts. One of them is concerning Hungary; it really cannot be mistaken, as it is called “The situation in Hungary”, but since there was lots of media coverage around it, people only know it by heart as the “Sargentini report”, named after the author of the report Judith Sargentini Green party coalition member. In a historic move by suggesting to trigger Article 7 of the Lisbon treaty on the 12th of September, the European Parliament accepted the Sargentini report which accuses the Hungarian government not following the European values and failing to uphold democratic norms in Hungary.
The report was accepted on the 12th of September with 64,6% in favour (448), 28,4% against (197), 6.9% abstaining (48) and 57 members of the European Parliament (EP) didn’t cast a vote. The EP’s decision does not have any legal consequence, as it does not automatically trigger Article 7 since it goes further for a 4/5 majority reaffirming vote to the Council of the European Union and just after that the European Council can consider putting sanction on Hungary, “including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council” to be suspended. This is a precedent to the extent that it has not only never happened before, but also starting the legislative process hasn’t been triggered to any country either in the EP. In order to grasp the gravity of this and to better understand the issue, the legislation and their critics have to be heard.
The content of the report:
The report was born in Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) and 4 other committees have contributed to the report, namely the Budgetary Control, Culture and Education, Constitutional Affairs and the Women’s Right and Gender Equality committees. These expert-based committees for opinion were needed because of the accused fields of wrongdoing of the Hungarian government lies in these fields, namely:
- Dysfunctioning of the constitutional and electoral system
- Lack of independence of the judiciary and of other institutions and the rights of judges
- Cases of corruption and conflicts of interest
- Lack of respect towards privacy and data protection
- Undermining freedom of expression, -academic freedom, -religion, -association
- Disregarding equal treatment and rights of persons belonging to minorities, thus resulting in hate speech
- Refusing the fundamental rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees
- Failing to ensure economic and social rights
The critique of the Sargentini-report:
Hungarian legal experts have argued that it is another “witch hunt” and “slander” (a rhetoric commonly used by Trump) and it is only following the continued effort of the European Union (EU) to silence the Hungarian people. They argue that the document itself can hardly be called a legal one because of some of the cases mentioned in the document date back to 2010, thus irrelevant, and seen as more of a political one, to put pressure on the Hungarian people. The real reason behind the legislation is the political condemnation of the Hungarian government’s strong stance on migration. Noteworthy that the report itself only concerns itself two times with the issue of migration, the other 9 concerns other, more serious issues.
The Sargentini-report is further criticized by saying that the consulted parties were mainly left-leaning opposition groups of the government such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee or Amnesty International, however, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hungarian Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, National Association of Hungarian Journalists, ELTE Law University and the University of Pécs were also on the list of the consulted parties.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán went as far in his speech at the Plenary session before the voting to proclaim that “Hungary is deemed to be punished because Hungarian people have decided that our country will not be an immigration state. […] I reject that pro-immigration forces are blackmailing Hungary.”
The “welcome” of the European Parliament:
The parallel between the migration issue and this report may not be neglectable, but this strong rhetoric didn’t translate into votes for Mr Orbán and within FIDESZ’s own EP party, the European People’s Party (EPP), there was a backlash, as Manfred Weber, the Faction leader of EPP, wrote on Twitter that:
Today I will vote in favour of triggering #Article7. I have always been in favour of building bridges and I want to continue to do so but yesterday I didn’t see any readiness from the Hungarian PM to make a move towards his EU partners and address our concerns. #Hungary
— Manfred Weber (@ManfredWeber) 2018. szeptember 12.
Mr Weber’s statement not just came as a cold shower for the Hungarian government but also translated into a backpaddle of the EPP to defend Hungary in the European politics, because of party cohesion and unity. Later on, addressing his party, Manfred Weber said that since the issue is so divisive that he urge their party members to vote according to their consciousness.
This resulted in the EPP voting 114 in favour, 57 against and 28 abstaining which mirrored the proportion of votes of many left-leaning EP parties. The only parties that voted against the legislation were the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group and some non-aligned members of the EP. This result indicates and further underpins the slow progress of FIDESZ moving from the centre-right to the far-right on the spectrum of political parties, in the EP and at home as well. The EPP’s motive to step back from Hungary is politically unknown, however, many speculate that since voting for the President of the European Commission is due in a year, the motive could lie behind Weber’s run for office.
After the vote:
Following the vote, it has been a major talking point in Hungary about the Sargentini report and many actors evaluated the vote from different perspectives.
Weber on Friday already reaffirmed his decision and went further saying “Hungary has a systemic risk of threatening the rule of law”.
Orbán appearing in Kossuth-radio hasn’t backpaddled either from his strong rhetoric and went further saying that “the centre of modern-day antisemitism is in Brussels”. He also stated that there hasn’t been a more important EP election than this and proclaimed that the next battle is about who will defend the borders of Hungary. He has also claimed that the voting was unlawful as abstentions should not be counted to the loss of against votes, as it is not stated clearly in the Lisbon treaty and therefore can be attacked at the European Union Court.
Sargentini in her tweet thanked her colleagues in his work and already pressed ahead at Macron to put the issue on the table of the Council of the European Union:
— Judith Sargentini (@judithineuropa) 2018. szeptember 13.
The media also reacted differently, as pro-government outlets like 888.hu called the acceptance of the report a fraud and that the European Union has cheated on the voting. The conservative portal “Magyar Idők” (Hungarian Times) reported that this was a circus and that Sargentini wants to discredit Hungary with her lies. The most interesting way of reporting the issue might be coming from the Hungarian TV channel TV2 and it’s daily news program “Tények” where they reported as a result of the successful vote against Hungary “Viktor Orbán is being hailed all-over Europe” and went on quoting Facebook comments of Hungarian and foreign people to underpin this argument:
Other left-leaning news portals such as HVG have reported the issue as Orbán was not only unable to defend Hungary, but himself as well and this can have serious implications at the EP and also at home, as EP elections are coming next year.
Index went after the people of the street in Hungary to ask them about their opinion on the Sargentini report. The video shows that at first, not everybody was aware of the report, but after a brief explanation, there were both supporters and opposers to the report. This showcases how divisive the issue is for Hungarians, as the report is talking about Hungary, seemingly offending its citizens, however, some make the distinction that it holds the government of Hungary accountable for their acts, not the everyday citizens (which was the aim of the report officially):
This view was also confirmed by the poll of Pulzus commissioned by Népszava which also reiterated the fact that most Hungarians are aware that this report does not aim to punish or target the Hungarian people but the Hungarian government. 80% of the adult population surveyed had heard of the vote in EP from which 42% claimed that they had followed the events closely and knew all the crucial details. Only 17% told the poll that they had no recognition of the events. More importantly, though, 63% of the respondents understand that “there are systemic problems with the rule of law in Orbán’s Hungary”, contrary to the communication of the government which tries to shift the edge of the report on migration. Still, 26% agreed with Orbán’s story that the proceedings in the EP were punishment for his migration policies. Even more interestingly 57% knew that the European Parliament passed judgment on the Orbán government’s governance and not on the Hungarian people. Finally, respondents were asked whether the Sargentini Report strengthened or weakened Viktor Orbán’s position in Europe. Almost 60% believe that it strongly or moderately weakened their prime minister’s standing.
As elections of the European Parliament are approaching just like the finish line at a derby: Manfred, Orbán, the EPP and Sargentini as well have placed their bets on the turnouts of the EP elections. For now, we wait for the elections to happen, as the “horses” are reaching the finish line so we know who comes in first, second and third and who can reap the most profit from it what they can take home to their own country.