Will the European Parliament stand for the principles at the heart of the EU?

Immediately after President Juncker’s State of the Union address on 12 September, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will face an historic choice: to confront Hungary’s derailment from the path of respect for fundamental rights and freedoms on which EU member states have chosen to walk together, or to allow the EU to move away from this path with member states openly violating EU founding principles.

Together with Human Rights Watch, the Open Society European Policy Institute, and other Hungarian and European civil society organisations, we are calling on MEPs  to stand up for these principles, including respect for human rights and the rule of law. 

MEPs will be voting in the plenary session to back or reject a crucial report on Hungary which concludes that the country is at a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the EU’s founding principles.

That conclusion is not a toothless expression of concern. It sounds the alarm. And it calls on MEPs to do their most important duty as elected representatives, in the service of all people in Hungary and elsewhere in the EU: to stand for human rights, democratic values and the rule of law.

If adopted with the necessary two-thirds majority, it directly activates Article 7.1 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), challenging the Council to make it clear to the Hungarian government that its indefensible actions will not be tolerated.

The situation in Hungary is serious enough to warrant the exceptional use of Article 7 TEU, which is the only measure allowing the EU to directly demand Hungary respects the EU’s founding principles. Article 7 also allows for a wider deliberation on the numerous concerns, as opposed to continuously going to the Court of Justice of the European Union with a new legal action each time the authorities in Hungary choose to disregard EU law, in a never-ending game of ‘catch me if you can’.

The EP report points out countless reasons for concern. These relate to the functioning of the country’s constitutional system, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, as well as the right to equal treatment, the rights of persons belonging to minorities, including Roma and Jews, the fundamental rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and much more.

Activating Article 7 is often described as the nuclear option because it could lead to sanctions such as the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the Council, if the government of Hungary is found, at the level of the European Council, to be in ‘serious and persistent breach’ of the EU’s founding principles.

This will not happen as an immediate consequence. Neither does it have to be the outcome at the end of the proceedings.  It does, however, mean that the EU uses the mechanisms available to stand up for its founding principles, placing the worrying situation in Hungary squarely on the table of member states, where it urgently needs to be.

The number of possible outcomes, once this is on the table of the Council, in fact ranges from a simple slap on the wrist for the Hungarian government, to serious warnings, and ultimately, sanctions. It will in any case ensure a critical debate takes place between member states and should lead to strong recommendations on behalf of the Council. This may lead the Hungarian authorities to change their course back to the common path of the EU.

What will happen if Article 7.1 is activated is therefore open-ended while the implications of MEPs choosing instead to prioritise short-term political gain over a principled approach are a certainty.

If MEPs do not take a stand, hard-won freedoms and rights, guaranteed by the European Union’s fundamental texts, will continue to be systematically trampled by the authorities in Budapest, in their cynical battle against defenseless refugees and migrants, other imaginary enemies and critical voices. Xenophobes and populists elsewhere in Europe will feel encouraged to forge ahead with their politics of fear, hate and disregard for opposing voices, knowing that they can get away with it.

In the last years, Hungary’s government has been speeding through numerous so-called ‘reforms’ curbing fundamental rights and freedoms in the country. The ability of the constitutional court to hold the government to account and the independence of the judiciary have been dramatically eroded; NGOs and the academic community receiving funds from abroad have been targeted with punitive arbitrary measures; media pluralism has severely declined; and people’s ability to protest has been restricted.

Amnesty International’s most recent annual report on Hungary captures the country’s progressively deteriorating human rights situation, highlighting the indefensible treatment of refugees and migrants, and the attacks against universities and NGOs receiving foreign funding.

Since the Hungarian parliamentary elections this past spring, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has stepped up its campaign against civil society organisations and its assaults on fundamental rights and freedoms, boosted by a significant majority in the Hungarian parliament, as well as by the almost complete silence of their European People’s Party colleagues in the EP and of the heads of government of other EU countries.
This has most recently peaked with the adoption of laws that criminalize legitimate migration-related work by civil society organisations, activists and lawyers, and that could deprive organisations that receive funds from abroad of a quarter of their income.

These facts have not gone unnoticed by the MEPs, as countless organisations, including the EU itself, numerous Council of Europe and United Nations bodies, as well as the civil society organisations that Fidesz is working so hard to undermine, have been scrutinising and repeatedly calling attention to these unacceptable backslides on fundamental rights and the rule of law in Hungary over the past years. The time for asking questions and for coaxing has passed. It is now time to act.

For MEPs to witness what is happening in Hungary and to fail to take asserted action would be an unforgivable mistake.

What will the future of Europe look like, if our elected representatives do not stand up to defend the Union’s very foundations