Thursday 19 January 2012

Debate on Hungary in the European Parliament

Hungary's Prime Minister addressed the European Parliament today in the debate on Hungary's new constitution and Fidesz's actions in power. Earlier, in the debate on the Danish presidency, Danish PM Thorning-Schmidt signaled her support for the Commission's legal action against Hungary, side-stepping the question of using Article 7 TEU against Orban's government if Fidesz doesn't make sufficient changes.

Viktor Orban repeated his defence of the new constitution to the EP: that it was the final part of the transition from Communism to democracy. EPP group leader Daul continued along the same line, agreeing with Orban's assessment that it was part of the transition to democracy, while also signalling support for any changes that might be required under EU law. This is a shameful balancing act by the EPP leadership - both the Hungarian government and the Commission are linked to the European People's Party: Fidesz is part of the EPP and the Commission is dominated by the EPP. Since the legal action that can be taken by the Commission is limited to narrow breaches of EU law, rather than the separate procedure for breaches of the EU's values under Article 7 TEU, Daul is essentially making it known that the EPP in Parliament will block any motion to initiate the Article 7 procedure against Hungary. Zbigniew Ziobro (Europe of Freedom and Democracy group) came out in full support of Orban, denouncing EU interference as interference in a sovereign state, and praising Orban for standing up for Hungary.

Guy Verhofstadt (leader of the liberal ALDE group) attacked the direction of Hungary's government and brought up the issue of Article 7:

"What is necessary is to check the conformity of the Hungarian Constitution and cardinal laws with the European values: democracy, the rule of law, the freedom of religion, the freedom of expression, equality also.

I think, besides the infringement procedures, this House, should take its responsibility.

I call on our colleagues of the LIBE committee to make a report on the basis of article 71 TEU. Stating YES or NO if there is a clear risk of a serious breach of our values. That is what we have to do."

A parliamentary report finding a breach of EU values would be the basis for a reasoned opinion which would be part of an EP motion for an Article 7 action. While Hannes Swoboda, the new leader of the Socialists and Democrats group, was very critical of the Orban government and the authoritarian culture surrounding it (pointing out that if Croatia had adopted the same rules it wouldn't be given EU membership) and mentioned the question of starting the monitoring step for Article 7 (though not as stongly as Verhofstadt). He also urged the EPP to hold Orban to account. Daniel Cohn-Bendit gave an impassioned speech for the Greens against Orban and his line on his government's anti-Stalinist motives.

Since the United Left and European Conservatives and Reformists groups were also critical of Hungary, it might be possible that the Parliament will flex its political muscle by starting the Article 7 procedure. Even if it does, it would take 4/5s of Member States voting for the motion for it to be passed, which is extremely unlikely given the dominance of the EPP in the Council, but such a clear and determined action by the EP would send a powerful political signal and keep this issue in the spotlight.

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