Members of the European Parliament traded verbal blows with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a debate Tuesday over democracy and the rule of law in his country.
MEPs will decide on Wednesday whether to launch disciplinary action against Hungary in what would be the most significant rebuke of Orban’s right-wing government by the bloc. It would also mark the first time Parliament has invoked Article 7, the EU power designed to curb human rights abuses.
Orban, who won a third consecutive term in power this year, has previously locked horns with EU leaders over his country’s hardline immigration policies and for clamping down on democratic institutions — including civic organizations, the media and academic institutions — as he consolidated his power.
Defending his country in a speech on Tuesday, Orban hit out at a report commissioned by the European Parliament that accused Hungary’s government of corruption, undermining democracy, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, and the rights of migrants, refugees and minorities — calling it “blackmail.”
“Hungary is going to be condemned because the Hungarian people have decided that this country is not going to be a country of migrants,” Orban said, before launching a searing attack on the EU and the report.
“I reject that the pro-immigration and pro-migrant forces of the European Union should threaten and blackmail and smear Hungary and the Hungarian people based on false allegations,” Orban said.
“Hungary will not accede to this blackmailing,” he added. “Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and Hungary will defend its rights, if needed even against you.”
The tirade triggered fiery rebukes from other MEPs.
“Let’s be honest,” Liberal MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said. “The inconvenient truth is that under these circumstances, it would be impossible today, Mr. Orban, that Hungary can join the European Union. That is the reality of today.”
Verhofstadt went on to say that Orban was not his country, and that Hungary was “far more eternal” than Orban’s far-right government.
Socialist leader Udo Bullmann branded Orban “the head to the most corrupt system which is currently in power in the European Union,” saying that it must come to an end.
Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People’s Party — the alliance of center-right European politicians of which Orban is a member — suggested the start of dialogue based on Article 7 could be necessary if Hungary was unable to solve the current issues on the table.
Under Article 7, the most serious punishment that could be inflicted would be the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the EU.
But for any disciplinary proceedings to move forward, it would require the backing of two-thirds of MEPs and it’s unclear which way the vote will go on Wednesday.
Poland is the only EU country to have faced the rule of law procedure, intended to prevent member states from lapsing on fundamental rights. The European Commission began the disciplinary process against Poland in December 2017, but Brussels has not moved quickly on the case, and Hungary has previously said it would reject the proposal.