There was no need to wait for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s big speech.
The deeply troubled state of the European Union was on full display in Strasbourg on Tuesday as senior EU officials lambasted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for trampling democratic freedoms and undermining fundamental rights. Orbán fired back, accusing the guardians of the EU treaties of hypocrisy, abuse of power, and violating Hungary’s national sovereignty.
Critics of Orbán, who has used vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric to fuel his popularity and has his country in an ever-tightening authoritarian grip, said efforts by Brussels to bring him to account were long overdue.
But the spectacle of prominent EU officials trading vicious barbs with one of the bloc’s most powerful and successful national leaders was ugly, and it exposed a ragged and widening chasm between East and West. Such clear evidence of that gap will make any effort by Juncker to celebrate European unity in his speech on Wednesday morning seem like the whimpers of an exhausted hiker lost in a canyon.
Beyond casting a shadow over Juncker’s speech, the escalating battle with Orbán threatens to complicate upcoming EU debates on a wide range of important issues, particularly the bloc’s next long-term budget.
The fight also effectively vaporizes the already dim prospects that EU leaders might find any new common ground on migration at an upcoming informal summit in Salzburg, Austria. Orbán has long positioned himself as the biggest obstacle to any effort to draw up a new common asylum policy beyond tightening border controls.
The debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday, over whether to initiate Article 7 disciplinary proceedings against Hungary, was not civil. It opened with Judith Sargentini, a Dutch MEP leading the Article 7 effort, chastizing Orbán for arriving a few moments after she had begun her opening statement.
“I wanted to shake hands,” Sargentini said in a cutting tone, “but he turned up late for the debate.” MEPs groaned.
The session ended with Orbán taking aim at some of his harshest critics. “Mr. Verhofstadt,” he said, referring to Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who is now leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. “He is no longer in the chamber but it seems that you love Europe, but you actually hate Christian Democrats.”
At another point, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans digressed from his impassioned speech in support of EU fundamental values to take a sharp dig at Orbán for repeatedly proclaiming himself a champion of “Christian Europe” but allegedly denying food to refugees.
“Member states have to ensure that the basic needs of persons in transit zones are covered and they are treated in a humane and dignified manner — this includes providing food to asylum-seekers staying in border zones,” Timmermans said. “I would say that this is the humane, or should I say the Christian way to do things.”
The Parliament will vote on Wednesday, shortly after Juncker’s State of the Union speech, on whether to initiate the Article 7 proceeding, which theoretically could lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the EU. Even some major leaders of Orbán’s political family, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), said they would vote in favor of Article 7.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group in Parliament, who has declared himself a candidate for Commission president in next year’s European election, said he would vote in favor, noting that he detected no “readiness” for compromise on the part of Orbán, whom he has counted on as a political ally in the past.
“I think we have had enough dialogue,” Weber said after a meeting in which EPP leaders decided to postpone a decision on taking their own action — possibly suspending or expelling Orbán’s party, Fidesz.
Even Joseph Daul, the president of the EPP who makes few public pronouncements, weighed in Tuesday on Twitter, with implicit criticism of Orbán and Fidesz.
The European Union is based on #freedom, democracy, equality, academic liberty, #RuleOfLaw, respect for human rights & a free civil society. These are inviolable values @EPP will not compromise irrespective of political affiliation.
— Joseph Daul (@JosephDaul) September 11, 2018
In reality, the Article 7 process — even if supported by the required two-thirds of Parliament — stands no chance of success. To suspend Hungary’s voting rights would require a unanimous vote by all other EU nations. Poland is facing its own Article 7 proceeding over changes to its judicial system that the Commission says have undermined the rule-of-law and violated EU rules.
Budapest, anticipating its own fight with Brussels, has vowed to block action against Warsaw, and the two nations have essentially reached a mutual defense pact, which critics have derided as an “unholy alliance.”
Orbán, who has been prime minister of Hungary for 12 of the last 18 years, and won re-election in April with an overwhelming majority, not only stood his ground in Parliament on Tuesday, but lashed back viciously at his critics.
Many officials in Brussels and throughout Europe are genuinely outraged at the rise of authoritarianism in Hungary, as well as allegations of anti-Semitism, discrimination against Roma, and corruption in the use of EU funds. MEPs will vote Wednesday on a report drafted by Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, which highlights these concerns.
But Orbán accused his detractors of trying to punish Hungarians for the country’s unwillingness to support EU migration policies, and for taking a more conservative approach to what Orbán calls “Christian European” values.
“Hungary’s decisions are made by the voters in parliamentary elections,” Orbán thundered. “What you are claiming is no less than saying that the Hungarian people are not sufficiently capable of being trusted to judge what is in their own interests. You think that you know the needs of the Hungarian people better than the Hungarian people themselves. Therefore I must say to you that this report does not show respect for the Hungarian people. This report applies double standards, it is an abuse of power, it oversteps the limits on spheres of competence, and the method of its adoption is a treaty violation.”
Recognizing that he would almost certainly lose the vote, Orbán was clearly playing to his base. “Every nation and member state has the right to decide on how to organize its life in its own country,” he said. “We shall defend our borders, and we alone shall decide who we want to live with.” Chiding his critics, he said: “I know that you have already formed your opinions.”
At a news conference later, he accused his opponents of taking orders from Berlin, a reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel with whom Orbán has clashed over migration policy.
Timmermans, speaking for the Commission, said Hungary had been accused of misusing EU funds more than any other member country, and he denounced the government’s suppression of basic freedoms.
“Democracy in our member states, in our European Union, cannot exist without the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights,” Timmermans said, adding, “Sadly, the Commission shares the concerns expressed in the report in particular as regards fundamental rights, corruption, the treatment of Roma and the independence of the judiciary. As regards fundamental rights, the report highlights important issues relating to civil society, academic freedom and media pluralism, which are crucial for the good functioning of democracy.”
It was the sort of lecture that might normally be reserved for Russia, China or Iran. Instead, it was directed at Orbán — an EU leader whose job approval rating, according to a poll last spring, stood at 59 percent among “decided voters” — far higher than Merkel’s governing coalition, which recently polled at under 30 percent approval, or French President Emmanuel Macron at 34 percent.
But while Orbán sought to portray himself and Hungary as avidly pro-European, his argument was not necessarily helped by Nigel Farage, the British MEP and pugnacious Brexiteer, who jumped to the Hungarian’s defense in Tuesday’s debate.
“Thank God there is at least one European leader prepared to stand up for his principles, his nation, his culture and his people, in the face of such extreme bullying,” Farage said.
Warning to the rising right
Still, as ugly as the EU’s divisions might be, some officials said that a display of solidarity against Orbán among a large majority of the bloc — especially prominent members of the EPP like Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz — would send a powerful message to other right-wing, would-be troublemakers, including Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
That message may also prove particularly important in so-called net-contributor countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria — which pay more money into the EU budget than they get back — and where there is rising discontent over breaches of EU norms and values by countries like Hungary and Poland that benefit heavily from EU funds.
“We can no longer stand by and watch the Hungarian government destroy fundamental freedoms,” Petra Kammerevert, a German MEP and chairwoman of the Committee on Culture and Education, said.
Maïa de La Baume, Lili Bayer, Ryan Heath and Florian Eder contributed reporting.