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Stakes high in Hungary sanctions vote

Teri Schultz Brussels
September 10, 2018

The European Parliament is set to vote on Hungary's human rights record, which could lead to the country losing voting rights. Can Prime Minister Viktor Orban make the case to lawmakers to avoid sanctions?

Anti-Regierungs-Proteste in Budapest
Image: Reuters/B. Szabo

Marta Pardavi said she knew all too well what would be waiting for her after speaking out in Brussels about the Hungarian government's continuing crackdown on human rights and rule of law. Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, lives daily with the repercussions of defending what are generally considered "European values" — but not in Viktor Orban's Hungary.

Read moreIs Viktor Orban the EU's hardline hero or villain?

Pardavi, whose organization represents and defends asylum-seekers in Hungary, described to DW what happened after a recent appearance before the civil liberties committee in the European Parliament (EP). "Already during the event, while I was sitting here in Brussels in the European Parliament, my colleagues in the office were flooded with hate mails, with telephone calls, calling me and my organization out for 'slandering Hungary' while we stand up for democracy," she recalled. "My name and my picture and those of my colleagues who come to Brussels to talk about the rule-of-law problems in Hungary are always targeted after these events. It's not only a fear but based on evidence that I know that this will be happening."

As Pardavi predicted, within an hour of this event finishing, the Budapest office of Amnesty International, which also had a representative on the panel, reported it had received a death threat for supporting the "VoteYes4Hungary" campaign urging the EP to vote Wednesday to launch Article 7 sanction procedures against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which could lead to a suspension of voting rights in EU affairs. 

"Sargentini Report" to learn its fate

European Parliamentarian Judith Sargentini says this kind of behavior has no place in the EU. As the legislature's rapporteur on Hungary, the Dutch lawmaker is urging her counterparts to support her recommendations to launch Article 7 [Article 7.1. would allow the Council to give a formal warning to any country accused of violating fundamental rights. If that doesn’t have the desired effect, Article 7.2 would impose sanctions and suspend voting rights — the ed.] against Budapest in the Wednesday vote. 

Sargentini's report says Orban's attacks on the press, the judiciary, migrants and refugees, and rights of minorities are a "systemic threat" to the EU's fundamental principles. "We lose legitimacy in our in our human rights stance and our values of democracy outside of the union if we let this happen inside," she told DW. "But the main issue is that Hungarian citizens are losing out on an inclusive democracy."

Another view: report is mistaken, misguided

Not all those citizens agree with Sargentini. Miklos Szantho, Director of the Budapest-based Center for Fundamental Rights, is among them. Szantho and his colleagues accuse Sargentini and her supporters of waging a "smear campaign" against Orban and Hungary. "The report contains several untrue findings," Miklos told DW. "One cannot tell if these...are rooted in the false interpretation of Hungarian law or are simply falsehoods." His center has sent out briefing papers on what it sees as the report's many errors.

Szantho said, for example, that the Hungarian constitutional court's powers have not been curtailed, as the report claims, but rather that "its competences have changed." He pointed to criticisms that Hungarian fundamental law still defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman and that Hungarian public education "depicts women as primarily mothers and wives" as evidence that Sargentini actually wants an "ideology-motivated debate on worldviews and on the nature of...what is 'wrong' and what is 'right'." Szantho said the entire exercise was an unacceptable intrusion into Hungarian sovereignty. He rejected the suggestion that human rights groups are facing any kind of threat, calling it an "absurdity."

Orban spokesman: "desperate attempt" to force Hungary to take migrants

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs briefed journalists in Brussels a day before the debate in Strasbourg, where Orban himself will get seven minutes to make his case. Kovacs disparaged the Sargentini report as a "pack of lies." "The real motive behind it is our stance on illegal migration," Kovacs said. "This is a desperate attempt on behalf of pro-migrant, pro-migration political groups to put Hungary on trial."

"That's no good for the European project," Kovacs complained, "that many on the political left, including the French president, are trying to divide Europe along these lines."

Others vehemently disagree. "If we still believe in the European project, we simply have no choice but to stand up for our freedoms and values," said Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of the transatlantic counter-Kremlin initiative "Defending Democracy." Stollmeyer is among those calling on the EP's largest political group, the European People's Party (EPP), to kick out Orban's Fidesz party over what she sees as its anti-democratic stance.

"For years, the EPP has claimed it is better to keep Orban's party Fidesz in than out, but this has been a catastrophe," Stollmeyer told DW. "Appeasement policy didn't work in World War II, nor does it now." "This [EP] vote is about the Europe we want."

For those in Hungary already under fire for defending human rights, the vote cannot be underestimated. Failing to sanction Budapest would indeed reflect badly on the EU's dedication to protect democracy, said Marta Padavi. She believes that not just Hungary but also other governments would hear the message loud and clear, that "yes, you can go ahead and disregard core values, you can disregard checks and balances you can disregard human rights. There will not be any real hard consequences."

Read moreOpinion: EU migration debate – let the showdown begin 

But there appears to be little clarity within the EP on the matter. It's not certain enough MEPs will raise their voices for either side. Moving forward will require a two-thirds majority of those in the plenary and an absolute majority of the 751 MEPs.