At last there seems to be real action on the part of the European Parliament. What happened today may mean a new chapter in the relations between the European Union and the far-right nationalist government of Viktor Orbán. This time, over and above the normal verbal condemnation, the European Parliament called on the Commission to “immediately initiate an in-depth monitoring process on the situation of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary and to report back on this matter to the European Parliament and Council before September 2015.” We may have complained in the past about the snail-like pace of the EU bureaucracy, but today we cannot reproach them for being slow. The deadline is tight, but some of the work has already been done.
Almost two years ago Rui Tavares, a member of the European Parliament from Portugal, compiled an admirable report on Hungary’s violations of human rights and the basic values of the European Union. Anyone who’s interested in the details of this report should read Prof. Kim Lane Scheppele’s article, which appeared on this blog. Although the report was endorsed by the European Union and although it contained several recommendations, there was no follow-up. Now the European Commission has to dredge up the Tavares Report and add to it all the subsequent sins of the Orbán government. I trust that this time, finally, the Hungarian government’s flagrant violation of EU principles will have serious consequences.
Today’s condemnation is the final outcome of a discussion of the Hungarian situation initiated by the socialist (S&D), liberal (ALDE), and green (Greens-EFA) members of the European Parliament that took place on May 19th, with Viktor Orbán present. Today the objections to Hungarian government policies came to a vote. The differences of opinion on the Hungarian situation between the left and the right can be seen in my post of June 4, where I quoted the texts of the prepared points of the two sides.
The results of today’s vote are revealing. The European Parliament has 751 members. The vote for the resolution of the socialists, liberals, and greens was 362, with 247 against it. Eighty-eight members abstained, while 54 were either absent or didn’t vote. So, where did the yes votes come from? The S&D caucus has 191 members, ALDE 69, and the Greens 50. Thus the three parties that proposed the finally accepted resolution had a combined 310 votes if all their members were present and if they all voted for the resolution, not enough to pass it. GUE-NGL, a far-left group (as Fidesz calls them, communists), with 52 members was the most likely candidate to have made up the difference. We don’t know how many Christian Democrats (EPP) with 219 members, conservatives (ECR) with 72, or the euroskeptic EFDD with 47 voted for the resolution, but I suspect that a few did. One ought also to keep in mind that, in addition to the above parties, there are 51 independent members, including the three Jobbik delegates.
The really telling number is the 88 abstentions, which most likely came from ambivalent EPP MEPs. There is a good possibility that between 35% and 40% of EPP members can no longer wholeheartedly support Fidesz. And that is bad news for the Orbán government, although the high-level Fidesz members who in the last few hours commented on the results tried to convince their supporters and most likely themselves as well that the vote confirmed that “the European People’s Party didn’t abandon the Hungarian government party.” Calling the resolution a “second Tavares report,” as Gergely Gulyás described today’s vote, is like comparing apples and oranges. What he most likely meant was that both are full of “distortions of facts.” The resolution may come as an unpleasant surprise, but Fidesz still feels confident enough to state, as Gulyás did at his press conference, that the position of the Hungarian government is clear: “we are against immigration.”
The Fidesz members of the EPP also expressed their views on the resolution. According to their official statement, in fairly poor English, “double standards have never been more apparent” than in this case. They attack the left and the liberals “for generating hysteria over Hungary.” The resolution, in their opinion, “resorts to labeling, bending the truth and factually false statements.” Moreover,
The leftist and liberal political groups discredit themselves once more: while they are ready to abuse their majority in the EP to hold plenary debates and pass resolutions on Hungary – even when there is in fact no Hungarian legislation to scrutinize – they remain silent on recent events in Romania. The double standards applied not only discredit the political groups but unfortunately also the European Parliament itself. This must stop! Hungarian citizens voted resolutely last year for a second term for Fidesz and KDNP. The respect of the democratic choice of the voters is the most basic democratic principle and should never be contested in the European Parliament.
In brief, once a government is elected, it can do anything it wants.
Jobbik has three members in the European Parliament who sit with the independents because no parliamentary delegation wanted to have anything to do with them. Their leader, Zoltán Balczó, naturally defended the government party because, after all, ideologically they are not very far apart. In his opinion, the resolution “will not have any consequences” and “the whole thing is simply a show.”
The two-member MSZP EP delegation published a short statement, unfortunately only in Hungarian, which praised the resolution as “a principled and at the same time unambiguous answer to Viktor Orbán’s provocation.”
The most sanguine statements came from Csaba Molnár and Péter Niedermüller, the two DK EP members. They most likely overstated the case when they claimed that “a significant portion of the European People’s Party supported the resolution.” But I agree that EPP support for Fidesz by EPP has been eroding.
I think it is a wishful thinking on the part of Jobbik’s Balczó that the resolution will have no consequences. The European Commission is no longer the commission of José Manuel Barroso. Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans, his right-hand man, are a great deal less accommodating than Barroso was when it comes to the increasingly unacceptable behavior of the Hungarian prime minister.