On 12 September the European Parliament voted in favour of starting procedures against the Hungarian government for breaching European values. The report on the state of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in Hungary was prepared by Greens/EFA rapporteur Judith Sargentini in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). We asked Hungarian MEP Benedek Jávor (Greens/ EFA) how he evaluates the outcomes of the vote. The interview was conducted by Zsófia Deák from the Prague Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Many MEPs have turned away from Viktor Orbán even within his own political group, the EPP, since May 2017, when the state of democracy in Hungary was discussed at the European Parliament and when the LIBE committee was mandated to draw up the report. How do you evaluate the results of Wednesday's vote on the Sargentini Report?
Since May 2017 the Hungarian Government's actions have proved again and again what their attitude is towards democratic institutions, the media, and the rule of law. The situation has been deteriorating since that time, and EPP members could not pretend they did not know what was going on in Budapest. This is a very important, positive outcome, as the overwhelming majority of the European Parliament agrees there are serious problems in Hungary. It became clear that Orbán politically is closer to the far-right parties than to mainstream Christian Democrats. With this vote he has lost the battle to dominate the EPP: European conservatives are not ready for an 'Orbanification' of their political group. Now the Hungarian prime minister will most probably turn to his plan B, which is to bring eurosceptic far-right forces together into a political group at the EP. If so, he will soon have to recognize, however, what the difference is between enjoying the protection of the biggest political group in the EP versus the protection of a marginalized, extremist minority alliance.
What were your impressions after the debate on Tuesday that preceded the vote? How do you evaluate Orbán's speech and the reactions he received during the debate?
Orbán had the chance to choose a more compromise-seeking position with the EPP and with the EP in general, but in the end he decided to be more confrontational. He was not even trying to convince the EPP and the Plenary to support him, his speech and rhetoric was addressed to his own domestic supporters. It was also a crucial point that Manfred Weber, the chair of the EPP group, decided to speak up in this conflict. It is hard to say whether the EPP had ever proposed a compromise or whether it was already too late by now, but the result is clear: Orbán is in the minority. This became visible at the plenary, but the decision had been made earlier. By the time the speakers entered the room, the battle was already over. Both Orbán and Weber knew there would be no compromise, and they spoke according to that knowledge.
How were the final results communicated in Hungary by the Government and the opposition?
The Government presented it as an attack on the Hungarian nation. They did not even try to defend their position, they wanted to present themselves as victims of an unfair attack organised by a putative internationalist, pro-immigration conspiracy revenging itself against Hungary for allegedly having blocked their efforts to change the population of the continent. George Soros was mentioned there as well, of course. However, I felt there was a bit of confusion, a lack of strength, and some self-repetition in the governmental communication.
Most of the opposition parties welcomed the decision and evaluated it as a great success, underlining that the report criticizes the Government and not the country or the people, and emphasizing that actually the EP defends the fundamental rights of Hungarian citizens against their own Government. In fact, the vote is the first defeat for Orbán for a long time, and this generates a new political momentum in the country. There were calls for the resignation of the whole Government, and rallies were launched for the weekend. However, there were actually some opposition MEPs who voted against the report or who did not cast their votes, mostly from the far-right Jobbik party but most disappointingly also from LMP, one of the Hungarian green parties which has drifted to the right and closer to the Government in the last few years.
How was the vote received by the state media and independent outlets?
Government propaganda- quite predictably- tried to present the whole report as an attack against the Hungarian nation, and they mostly claimed it was revenge because for Hungary's anti-immigration policies. The Government-controlled news outlets were keen on presenting people from all over Europe who had "stood up for Hungary". In this alternative reality, the governmental media reported that Orbán had received an immense outpouring of support from the European public for his fight against European elites and institutions. The evidence provided of that was a couple of sporadic Facebook comments from Orbán's own website, which were then published in each and every governmental media outlet. The very few remaining independent outlets followed the whole debate and the votes very closely, and there were quite high numbers of analyses published. After the vote they followed the Government's reactions and made it very clear when the Government propaganda was full of false statements. They also analysed in detail the possible political consequences of the vote, which might have more of an effect than the practical legal procedure will, for the moment.
What do you expect – how will the EP decision to pass the Sargentini Report influence the politics of Orbán in the near future, taking into consideration the approaching EP elections?
Earlier on Orbán's main goal was to push the whole EPP into a more far-right position. He did not succeed. His former allies within the EPP (such as the CDU or the Austrian ÖVP, for example) decided to vote in favour of the Sargentini Report. Therefore it is clear now that his only allies are the eurosceptic, mostly openly racist, far-right parties. That is the only direction he can move in, and this will hugely influence his strategy for the EP elections. However, it does not seem likely that any new kind of far right EP group would ever gain as much influence as the EPP has now.
What does this vote mean for Hungary and the EU in the long run?
This vote was only one step in a longer process and now the discussion will proceed in the Council. However, it will not be much easier for Orbán to convince the other governments there, either. He has very few allies. The end of the process, in theory, could lead to certain sanctions against Hungary, but which sanctions would be possible is also not yet clarified. On the other hand, in the next multiannual financial framework (MFF) the Commission has proposed the option of freezing payments of EU funds in cases involving serious corruption issues (under the so-called rule of law procedure). So there might be a possibility to practically impose sanctions on Hungary even without a Council decision on the Article 7 procedure.
This decision was at least as important for Europe as it was for Hungary, though. Now it has been proved that the EU is able and ready to stand up for its fundamental rights and values, and not only when it comes to breaches of competition law, the single market rules, or state budget deficit targets. It was an important test.