Orbán defiant as EU parliament considers sanctions on Hungary

Populist PM claims his country is being punished for not being ‘country of migrants’

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, claimed his country was being condemned for choosing not to be a “country of migrants”, as he conceded that the European parliament was set to trigger the EU’s most serious sanction against his government.

Arriving late to a debate in the chamber in Strasbourg on Tuesday on the country’s courts, treatment of its Roma community and media and academic freedoms, Orbán told MEPs that the parliament was “insulting” his nation.

“I know that you have already made up your minds. I know that a majority will approve the report and I know that my speech here today will not manage to change your opinion,” he told MEPs.

“But still I have come heretoday because you are not going to condemn a government but a country as well as a nation. You are going to denounce Hungary that has been a member of the family of Christian nations for a thousand years.”

The Hungarian populist nationalist, who won landslide general election victory in April, was addressing the parliament before a vote on Wednesday on a report which has advised it to trigger article 7, which can ultimately lead to an EU member state losing its voting rights in the union’s institutions.

Orbán stands accused of undermining the independence of its judiciary and media, waging a propaganda and legal war against the Central European University, founded by the philanthropist George Soros, and mistreating asylum seekers and refugees while limiting the functioning of non-governmental organisations who seek to aid them.

The parliament’s committees on budgetary control, education, constitutional issues and equal rights, all backed article 7, while the European commission vice president, Frans Timmermans, told MEPs that he shared the “serious concerns” expressed in the chamber.

Some MEPs spoke in opposition to the report, including Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader who appealed to Hungary to join the “Brexit club”. Conservative MEPs also appeared set to vote against the triggering of article 7, on the grounds that it would be an interference in the country’s domestic politics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted: “Labour MEPs will vote to hold Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary to account. The Conservatives must do the same, and @Theresa_May should condemn his attacks on judicial and media independence, denial of refugee rights, and pandering to antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

But with Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s party (EPP), of which Orbán’s party, Fidesz is a member, signalling that his patience with the Hungarian government had been exhausted, it appeared almost certain that the threshold of two-thirds of MEPs supporting the triggering of the EU’s rule of law procedure would be met.

The Hungarian prime minister, who has been in power since 2010, offered no evidence, however, that he was willing to rethink his most contentious policies.

Instead, Orbán attacked the leadership of the EPP, describing it as “weak” and claiming it was “dancing to the tune of the socialists and the liberals”.

“We will protect our borders and we will decide who to live with,” Orbán said. “You want to exclude a nation from European decisions, you would strip Hungary of the right to represent its interests in the European family where it belongs.”

Orbán said the parliament’s vote would be a “slap in the face” of the democratic values of the EU, and pointed out that Hungary “took to arms against the biggest army in the world, the Soviet army, and shed its blood for freedom”.

“We do have contentious issues and will have in the future,”he said. “We have a different view on Christianity in Europe, the role of nations and national culture. Even differences on the essence of the family and we do have radically different views on immigration.

“These differences cannot be a reason to brand any country and be excluded from joint decisions. We would never go as far as to silence those that do not agree with us.”

Orbán, who has vowed to build a pan-European anti-immigration alliance, to which the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has announced his plans to fight, warned that his party had been the most successful in the last European elections, and he expected that result to be repeated in the poll next May.

“We stand ready for the election next May, where people can decide on the future of Europe and restore democracy,” he said.

Earlier, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, warned that next year’s European elections would be a fight for survival against populist movements of the right seeking to destroy the EU. Tsipras urged “progressive” parties to coordinate in response.

The European commission in December triggered article 7 – warning of a risk that fundamental values are being breached – against the Polish government over its contentious reforms of the judiciary.

The most serious sanction possible under article 7 is to suspend the member state of its voting rights in EU institutions, and potentially EU financial transfers, but it would require unanimity among the member states in a subsequent vote.

Hungary has said it would never support such a move and Poland would likely respond in kind.


Daniel Boffey in Strasbourg

The GuardianTramp

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