European Parliament Triggers Article 7 against Hungary
17 SEP 2018 Spotlight
On 12 September, European Parliament adopted a “reasoned proposal” calling on the EU Council to determine, based on Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded. Triggering this procedure is politically harmful to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who, despite numerous disputes with EU institutions, has so far successfully sought the support of the European Christian Democrats.

What was the vote about and what happened?

The EP for the first time used its right to propose the Council of the EU examine whether Hungary violates the EU’s founding values (in the case of Poland, the proposal was made by the European Commission). The vote endorsed a report approved by the EP’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in June, which found that there is a systemic threat to these values in Hungary. The document mentions 12 areas of concern to the EP, including the functioning of the constitutional and electoral system, independence of the judiciary, academic freedom, and corruption. The vote was adopted with 448 votes for and 197 against. Abstentions (48 votes) were not considered votes cast when establishing the required two-thirds majority threshold, in accordance with the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. The Hungarian government considers the vote invalid based on its own interpretation of the modalities of the vote on Article 7 as laid down in the treaties. Hungary is likely to challenge the validity of the vote at the European Court of Justice.

What are the consequences for Hungary?

Triggering Article 7 TEU does not mean automatic sanctions against Hungary. In the next step of the procedure, the Council of the EU will hear Hungary’s arguments and might make recommendations. The treaties do not set a time limit for this dialogue. If the Council finds the dialogue ineffective, it may decide to refer the matter to the next stage, at the European Council. However, launching the procedure means first and foremost a political loss for Hungary. A key element of the country’s European policy was to adjust as necessary domestic law to the letter of EU law in the course of infringement procedures as a proof it respects the rule of law. The launch of Article 7 TEU undermines that strategy.

How will the dynamics in the European People’s Party (EPP) change?

Most of the EPP group (114 for, 57 against) voted for the proposal and determined the outcome of the vote. This means that for the first time this group did not back its member Hungarian party Fidesz. The chairman of the group, Manfred Weber, Orbán’s ally from the Bavarian CSU party, also voted against the Hungarian government. This was because he wanted to relieve the tension in the group between its right wing, which includes Fidesz, and the critics of Hungary’s actions and Fidesz’s membership in the EPP. Weber seeks broad support from the party before the EPP chooses its lead candidate for the post of president of the next European Commission. Therefore, despite his vote, a conciliatory approach to Fidesz is most likely. At the same time, the Hungarian governing party will continue its anti-migrant rhetoric up to the elections to the EP, though it will not break through to the mainstream of the EPP.

What are the consequences for Fidesz’s membership in the EPP?

The triggering of the procedure does not mean the Hungarian ruling party is excluded from the EPP. Orbán declared his willingness to remain in its ranks. The EPP also needs Fidesz and its more than a dozen MEPs before the elections due to the weakened Christian Democrat parties in the EU, except Hungary’s. Losing the EPP majority’s support in the vote weakens the Hungarian government’s possibilities to act on the European scene. However, its membership in the party still provides Fidesz with incomparably greater influence on decisions taken at the EP than if it broke with it.

How will this event affect Poland?

Even though Hungary is now faced with the same Article 7 procedure as Poland, the two cases are separate and each has their own formal course. It is not legally possible for EU institutions to exclude one of these countries from a vote in the other’s case. According to Article 354 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, in a vote on the suspension of certain rights resulting from EU membership at the Council of the EU or the European Council, only the Member State in question cannot take part. The EP’s decision to trigger the disciplinary procedure against Hungary now was politically motivated. This may reduce some Member States’ willingness to support it in future stages.