Article 7 entails sanctions against those member states that systematically breach EU’s fundamental values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
The Hungarian government led by Fidesz’s strong man Viktor Orbán, has systematically broken its commitments under the Lisbon treaty over the past 8 years. It undermined the independence of the courts, it curbed the freedom of the media, it restricts the lawful activities of civil society organizations, curbs academic freedom and promotes intolerance and discrimination. Reactions from the European Union have been characterized as feeble and weak, up until this Wednesday. The 12th of September may well go down as the day when EU finally said, “enough is enough.”
Is this vote enough?
Wednesday’s vote is remarkable because it is endorsed by a significant majority in the EU Parliament. It is now the task of the European Council to determine with a 4/5 majority whether to continue with proceedings in similar way as with Poland. (The European Commission triggered Article 7 against Poland in December 2017 due to serious concerns about justice reforms that undermine the rule of law). The struggle to defend EU’s fundamental values is far from over.
There are no high expectations for Hungary to return to the rule of law after Wednesday’s vote. Expectations are that the Hungarian government will domestically continue to play a strong card and claim that the Sargentini report that served as the base for triggering article 7 is a condemnation of Hungary and of the Hungarian people. This will most certainly resonate with the nationalists and the mass of supporters that Fidesz has at home.
There are also expectations that the non-conciliatory tone of Hungary’s representatives will not diminish but continue at least until the European Parliamentary elections in May 2019. Orbán’s hope is to see a major shift in the political constellation in the European Parliament with stronger representation of the right-wing populist and Eurosceptic parties.
A great deal of responsibility lies with the members of the European Council. They must recognize that they have a responsibility to protect the values and principles that they have committed to. They must recognize that they have the responsibility to protect the rights of the citizens of their countries and of Europe. Any backsliding in democracy in one member state can have repercussions in other EU member states. We see this in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, just to name a few.
Triggering Article 7 has not been solely about Hungary, but about the principles of the European Union. Judith Sargentini stated at the press conference after the voting that the vote is targeted to the other EU member countries that seek to copy Hungary’s illiberal policies.
Responsibility lies also with each citizen of the European Union. In May 2019 citizens of the 27 EU member states will elect the 705 members of the parliament through direct vote. What the EU Parliament will look like after this date is highly dependent on how EU citizens vote. EU citizens too must recognize that they too have a responsibility in upholding and protecting the values of a union built on respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.