Orban Predicts EU Parliament to Censure Hungary Over Rule of Law

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Prime Minister Viktor Orban predicted European Union lawmakers would take the unprecedented step on Wednesday of threatening the EU’s strictest sanctions against Hungary for the erosion of democracy.

After a heated debate at the European Parliament on Tuesday, Orban said he expected the assembly to muster the two-thirds majority needed for a proposal saying that Hungary poses a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values.

“They’ll back the proposal,” Orban told reporters in the EU Parliament’s headquarters in Strasbourg, France. “We’re not kids; we see what’s going on.”

The initiative would then land on the table of EU governments, which would have to decide whether to trigger a European treaty provision that could ultimately lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the bloc.

The clash is part of a battle in Europe between supporters of liberal democracy and populists inspired by Orban’s anti-immigration stance and other EU-bashing habits. Sweden over the weekend became the latest country to see a surge in populist votes after similar forces pushed Britain onto the EU exit path and catapulted political bedfellows to power in Poland and Italy.

German Pressure

The European Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm in Brussels, requested a parallel Article 7 process against Poland last December to check a political assault on judicial independence. The EU Parliament has never voted on such an initiative.

The outcome on Wednesday has for days appeared too close to call, in part because Orban’s Fidesz party is allied to Europe’s Christian Democrats, the biggest group in the 28-nation assembly. The faction, known as the European People’s Party, also includes German allies of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But, asked during a press conference on Tuesday how he expects the EU Parliament vote to go, Orban said the assembly would garner the two-thirds majority because of pressure by Merkel on German EPP members to act against Hungary.

“It’s a done deal,” said Orban, who also predicted that the EPP would then try to suspend or even evict Fidesz. He vowed to fight such a move while insisting he’d make no policy compromises to the group.

Wednesday’s vote at around midday in Strasbourg will be a test of the EU’s commitment to fundamental values before legislative elections in May, with populists angling for control over the bloc’s direction. It also marks a landmark moment for the EPP, which has traditionally shielded Orban from criticism by other European parties.

EU ‘Nightmare’

Orban has named allies to head formerly independent institutions, rewritten the constitution and curtailed the power of the courts since returning to power in 2010. More recently, he’s led a crackdown against non-governmental organizations, the press and universities, calling for the creation of an “illiberal state” with few effective checks on executive power.

Critics in the EU Parliament on Tuesday said Orban’s threat to the rule of law marks a make-or-break moment for Europe.

“Stop this nightmare,” said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberals in the chamber. He said Orban was bent on wrecking the EU in tandem with the likes of populist Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

Even as the most serious sanctions against Hungary would be unlikely -- Poland would be expected to wield its veto before that point -- a pariah status within the EU club would bring its own costs in terms of a leader’s ability to influence European policies and appointments.

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