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EU triggers punitive procedure against Hungary over anti-migrant stance

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, Tuesday Sept.11, 2018
AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

EU lawmakers voted Wednesday to launch a rare procedure that could lead to sanctions against Viktor Orban's populist Hungarian government for posing a "systematic threat" to the bloc's democratic values.

It is the first time the Strasbourg parliament has initiated steps under Article Seven of the European Union's treaty, passing the motion by 448 votes for to 197 against with 48 abstentions.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wasted little time in slamming the vote as "nothing less than the petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians".

A defiant Orban on Tuesday vowed to resist any attempt to "blackmail" it into softening its anti-migrant stance, denouncing as insulting to Hungary's honor a report presented to the Strasbourg assembly accusing his populist government of posing a "systemic threat" to the EU's founding democratic values.

The report voiced concerns about the Hungarian judiciary's independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious freedom, and the rights of minorities and refugees.

Budapest argues that its anti-migrant measures and defense of sovereign rights are in tune with the mood of European voters -- who will elect a new parliament in Strasbourg next May.

"Whatever your decision will be, Hungary will not accede to this blackmail," an angry Orban told the lawmakers. "Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and defend its rights."

With elections for a new parliament in May 2019, the vote reflects growing pushback among traditional parties in Europe against the rise of populists, who oppose migration and are accused of undermining the rule of law.

FREDERICK FLORIN (AFP)

Dutch Greens MEP Judith Sargentini, who spearheaded the vote, smiled broadly and breathed a sigh of relief before embracing her supporters in parliament in the French city of Strasbourg.

"It is a positive sign of this parliament taking responsibility and wanting action," Sargentini told a press conference afterward.

She had urged colleagues not to let Hungary off the hook, declaring that Orban's rule "violates the values on which this union was built."

The vote was based on a report that voiced concerns about judicial independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious freedom, and the rights of minorities and refugees under eight years of Orban rule.

The vote takes the first steps under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, known by some in Brussels as the "nuclear option", which could ultimately strip Hungary of its EU voting rights.

Other EU governments could halt any further action, however, and Poland has warned it would do so.

Opposition to Orban's vision does not just come from the left, with disquiet also in the main centre-right parliamentary group, the European People's Party (EPP).

The EPP's leader, Manfred Weber, said he would vote in favor of the motion targeting Orban's government, whose Fidesz party belongs to his grouping. 

But a party spokesman said the group was divided about 50-50. 

While Orban's actions have provoked opposition, they have been applauded by populists in the EU, with prominent far-right figures floating the idea of forging a pan-European alliance ahead of next year's elections.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK (AFP)

The Commission, headed by EPP member Jean-Claude Juncker, has repeatedly clashed with Orban's government, especially since Budapest refused to admit asylum seekers under an EU scheme launched at the height of the migration crisis in 2015.

In July, the EU executive body warned it could take Budapest to the European Court of Justice over laws under which anyone assisting an undocumented migrant could be jailed for a year.

The top EU court could impose fines, which would be less drastic for Hungary than losing its voting rights. 

The vote was hailed as "historic" by Berber Biala-Hettinga, Amnesty International's expert on human rights in the EU.

"The European Parliament rightly stood up for the Hungarian people and for the EU. They made it clear that human rights, the rule of law and democratic values are not up for negotiation," she said

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EU have lost relevance

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