The European Union (EU), once the exemplar of an economic and political bloc, has found itself confronting internal turmoil that would have been unimaginable at the turn of the century. The EU parliament voted on Wednesday to punish Hungary for eroding democracy and violating “core values.”
The move marks just the second time the EU has used the disciplinary process laid out in Article 7 to punish a member state. Poland had already triggered Article 7 last December. Both countries could now face sanctions from the EU and even the suspension of voting rights within the bloc. Article 7 doesn’t require punishments but does provide mechanisms for doing so.
So what’s causing the on-going drama? Hungary has been accused of persecuting immigrants, cracking down on the media, and taking actions against outspoken universities. Consider that high-profile media outlets, such as Magyar Nemzet, have shut down in recent months, seemingly under pressure from the government.
Up until now, Hungary has largely been protected by the European People’s Party (EPP), a transnational conservative coalition with a considerable presence in the EU parliament. This time around, however, several EPP members abandoned Prime Minister Viktor Orban, leaving Hungary exposed to Article 7 for undermining democratic institutions.
Hungary is under the control of the far-right Fidesz Party, which backs Orban. So far, Orban has mostly hinted that Hungary and his party wish to stay in the European Union. However, he envisions the EU as a collection of strong but independent nations. Orban believes that the EU is becoming the “United States” of Europe.
Orban has already fired back at the EU, claiming that his nation will not be “blackmailed.” Over the course of three elections Orban has been able to garner high support among his citizens by maintaining strict anti-migrant positions. This appears to be the crux of his response to the EU’s decision to punish Hungary. Following the vote, Orban claimed: “Hungary is going to be condemned because the Hungarian people have decided that this country is not going to be a country of migrants.”
Former Belgian Prime Minister and current EU Parliamentarian Guy Verhofstadt blasted back, noting: “Let’s be honest. 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.”
The move to censor Hungary will certainly strain relations within the EU. Yet not punishing Hungary may have lead to even more discontent if member states felt that Brussels was failing to uphold its core values and key agreements. The rift appears to be growing between moderates who want to maintain the status quo, who wish to consolidate power in Brussels, and increasingly-prominent anti-EU/EU-reformist powers.
Right-wing anti-EU and EU-reform parties have been gaining ground in France, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. In Italy, the anti-EU M5S and Lega are now the two largest parties but lack the majority needed to rule on their own. The governments of both Poland and Hungary are both controlled by right-wing nativists.
It’s unlikely that Hungary will be stripped of its voting rights within the bloc because doing so would require a unanimous vote. Currently, Poland is finding itself under similar pressure. Now, the two governments and their EU parliament members will likely protect one another. Still, the EU is entering perhaps the most dire straits -politically- in its history.