European Parliament’s Article 7 against Hungary Not a Nuclear Option, but the Right Step

7 min read
Photo Credit: Yurlick / Shutterstock
Wednesday afternoon the European Parliament launched the Article 7 procedure with a surprising majority to determine whether there is a clear risk of serious breach of EU fundamental values of rule of law, civil liberties, and democracy

Wednesday afternoon the European Parliament launched the Article 7 procedure with a surprising majority to determine whether there is a clear risk of serious breach of EU fundamental values of rule of law, civil liberties, and democracy in its long-time enfant terrible member state, Hungary. However, the procedure often labelled as the “nuclear option” of the EU will this time hardly result in any sanctions, as it is questionable whether any final decision can be made prior to the upcoming EP elections in May 2019. Nevertheless, the vote has far-reaching consequences and marks a turning point in the relations of the European Union and Hungary. It enhances the chance of a possible break-off between the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Hungarian governing party Fidesz of Prime Minister Orbán that would expose Hungary to further naming and shaming and possible sanctions due to its uninterrupted authoritarian path since 2010. As a reaction, Orbán might further strengthen his links to Moscow and Beijing and use them increasingly to counterbalance his growing isolation in the EU. However, he needs to reconsider Hungary’s political strategy as his bargaining positions deteriorate and his multi-vectoral foreign policy starts to crumble.

Reaching the Critical Mass

Hungary started its long endeavor to leave behind liberal democratic norms and move toward an increasingly authoritarian political system in April 2010, when the former right-conservative, today rather populist radical-right, party Fidesz of Viktor Orbán won a historical two-third majority, allowing it one-party constitutional amendments. The constitutional engineering and democratic backsliding process introduced by Orbán has not only neutralized institutional checks and balances of liberal constitutionalism in the country, shaped the electoral system in the ruling party’s favor, demonized and suppressed critical civil society, and dehumanized asylum seekers, but has also resulted in both the 2014 and 2018 “free but not fair” elections remaining far behind the standards of democratic elections.

Since 2010, the European Parliament has urged its institutional co-fellows, the Commission, and the Council several times to address the issue of growing illiberalism and democratic backsliding in Hungary, but these remained politically idle. Although the Commission launched several infringement procedures against Budapest due to the violation of European law, it remained reluctant to make any move with political importance. Both the Commission’s Rule of Law mechanism and Article 7 were deployed against Poland — the other East Central European country that made an illiberal turn — but not against Hungary, where the situation of rule of law and democracy was incomparably worse. A key reason for this reluctance was, among others, the membership of Fidesz in the EPP, Europe’s biggest political group. Having not only a relative majority in the EP, but also in the Council and among the Commissioners, this was a strong safeguarded for Fidesz and the Hungarian government from any serious consequences of its authoritarian moves.

Key EPP politicians, like Manfred Weber, Joseph Daul, and even Angela Merkel thought they would have larger influence over Orbán if he was within and not outside of the family. However, the warning signs started to show that in strategic issues, like the fate of the Central European University or the laws condemning critical nongovernmental organizations, the EPP has practically no leverage over the government in Budapest. Orbán always promised tactical retreats but gained strategic victories.

The game changer turned out to be the personal ambition of Manfred Weber, head of the EPP parliamentary group, to run as the next president of the European Commission. Weber, one of Orbán’s former guardian angels, understood that his success would not depend on those seats the EPP could harvest by flirting with the radical right and Orbán, but rather the support of the other political groups, most notably the Socialists and Democrats and The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe that are very critical of the developments in Budapest. For Weber, Orbán turned from asset to deadweight. The decision made by EPP Tuesday night allowing its members to vote freely about the Sargentini report signalizes that strategic turn.

What is at Stake?

The triggered procedure according to Article 7.1 of the Treaty on European Union is not the nuclear option. It does not allow the introduction of any sanctions against the government in Budapest, that would be the next step under Article 7.2 TEU. However, with an eye on the upcoming EP elections in May 2019, there is high probability the procedure cannot be concluded in this period. The move is only naming and shaming by the determination of the risk of a serious breach of EU values in the country.

The ball is now in the Council’s court. After a hearing, the Council should vote with the required four-fifths majority of its votes for the proposal, which should be confirmed again by the European Parliament. Both the Council’s reluctance and the new political composition of the EP after the 2019 elections can easily lead to a dead end. Furthermore, Article 7.2 enabling the introduction of sanctions cannot be triggered by the Parliament, only by the Commission and one-third of the member states. Therefore, no sanctions against Hungary are in sight at all.

The real importance of the decision is not embodied in its legal consequences, but in its political impact. When Manfred Weber publicly proclaimed his supports for the Sargentini report, he fundamentally changed all calculations of Orbán regarding the embeddedness of Fidesz in the European party political landscape. Fidesz and the EPP are now set on a course of confrontation that sooner or later will result in the suspension or leave of Fidesz. A healing of the relationship given the current circumstances is hardly possible. Orbán must reconsider his strategy both on the field of European party politics and on international affairs.

Orbán and his Fidesz party will most likely opt for stronger cooperation with the European radical right, a scenario long-prepared for by nurturing good relations to Christian Strache, Matteo Salvini, and Geert Wilders. This may result in a smaller EPP and larger far-right groups in the new EP, but — in the lack of EPP’s former protecting hands — also exposes Hungary to further naming and shaming as well as to possible sanctions.

Considering the Orbán regime’s track record of ongoing radicalization and inability to consolidate, Hungary will pursue a confrontational course within the EU for the near-term, increasingly blocking EU positions to get leverage within the Council, further isolating Budapest. In the midterm, Hungary might become increasingly dependent on Russia and China. Orbán might use Moscow and Beijing to counterbalance his isolation within the EU and increase his leverage over Brussels. However, in the current situation, his bargaining position vis-á-vis Russia and China is definitely weaker.

Domestically, Orbán will not wrestle with weakening political support, as the government-dominated Hungarian media will flood the public with conspiracy theories — like the alleged pro-migration alliance between the EPP and the political left — as explanation of the defeat. Furthermore, Hungary will file a lawsuit before the European Court of Justice against the decision due to the disputed vote-counting scheme that allowed the required two-third majority for the proposal. Nevertheless, in the midterm Fidesz must face certain domestic consequences too. With Hungary’s position in the EU becoming more uncertain, the conservative middle class interested in the country’s EU membership can also become more critical toward the regime. This trend is already gaining shape since 2017, due to the government’s attacks on Central European University and academic freedom that are endangering the quality of the higher education the for middle class children. Now, this trend has new impetus.

In the Last Minute

With this decision the European Parliament took the right step in the very last minute to address the issue of overt authoritarian developments in one of the EU member states. The support of the proposal by Manfred Weber and a large part of the EPP realigned the European party political embeddedness of the Hungarian governing party Fidesz, and the strategic position of Hungary within the EU. The new options rising from the situation may encompass more strategic uncertainty and risk for the future, but the first step was definitely made to overcome the European deadlock caused by the serious democratic backsliding of an EU member state.    

Daniel Hegedüs is Rethink.CEE fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.