An Unprecedented Move by the EU
There are constant developments arising from Brussels as the European Parliament vote on matters which often have a direct impact on its citizens. The European Parliament recently voted (Wednesday 12th September) to pursue disciplinary action against the country of Hungary. This is unprecedented. The basis of this vote was the severe allegations against Hungary, specifically that it has breached the European Union's (EU) core values.
Whilst this initial vote is concerning for the State of Hungary, a second vote is to be held. This will be for the political leaders from each of the EU’s Member States. It is this vote that, if approved, will lead to punitive measures against Hungary. Amongst these measures is the grave punishment of stripping Hungary of its voting rights at EU level.
Among the accusations is Hungary’s firm stance on immigration. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has made it a criminal offence for lawyers and activists to help asylum seekers. Extensive information on Mr Orban and his political history can be found here. There has been further pressure imposed by the Hungarian government on the electorate and the courts. For example, Orban has removed particular judges who make decisions which are contrary to the beliefs of the government. Additionally, there are concerns with corruption being rife in the system. These issues, if true, would clearly have a negative impact on free and fair elections, as well as the right to a fair trial by an impartial judge. Both rights are found in the European Convention of Human Rights. The right to a fair election is found in Article 3 of the First Protocol of the ECHR, whereas the right to a fair trial is found in Article 6 of the main convention itself.
After the first vote, it was clear that the EU have further worries regarding Hungary, with the following being noted by the BBC:
The constitutional and electoral system;
Privacy and data protection;
Freedom of expression and religion;
Academic freedom and freedom of association; and
Equal rights, particularly for refugees and minorities.
Mr Orban has had the opportunity to respond to this and, unsurprisingly, he has contested the vote. He has also made an accusation of blackmail and censorship against the European Parliament. In addition, a scathing attack has been made by Mr Orban on Dutch Greens MEP Judith Sargentini, who is the chair of the report (which can be found here). This occurred during a debate in Strasbourg.
There are repercussions to these allegations if proven. They are found in Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU). The TEU is one of two fundamental treaties to the EU. Article 7 is designed to protect the fundamental values of the EU, namely respect for: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights (including the rights of persons belonging to minorities). Whilst Article 7 does include the forfeiture of voting rights, due to the extremity of the punishment and its unprecedented use, it is unlikely that the EU will resort to this. Indeed, Hungary is currently facing preventative measures in an attempt to avoid using the sanctions within Article 7. This distinction is important to note. A preventative measure can be used where there is a "clear risk of a breach of EU values". Whereas the sanction mechanism, being much more serious, applies where there have been "serious and persistent breaches of EU values".
At the time of writing, the State of Poland is also facing disciplinary proceedings. This was launched by the European Commission in December 2017 regarding similar issues to Hungary. However, the case has yet to reach the European Parliament. The result of the Hungarian proceedings could be an indication as to what stance and level of tolerance, if any, the EU will have in these circumstances. This appears to be symptomatic of the rise of nationalism within the EU. This rise has caused tension within the EU, with Member States such as: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (known as the “Visegrad Four”) refusing to meet migrant quotas. As a result, there have been suggestions within the EU that have hinted at imposing potentially devastating punishments on both Poland and Hungary: by reducing their EU funding.
Whilst a large amount of work remains to be done in order to address this issue, the relevant discussions are certainly taking place. The approach the EU will take remains to be seen, although the use of preventative measures and/or sanctions could send a message to all EU Member States. This article does, however, suggest that in order to find a suitable solution, the relevant EU authorities will need to consider the wider, underlying issues within the Union.