The vote was passed by a more than two-thirds majority on Sept. 12, with many of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s conservative allies deserting him. Poland, however, said it would veto any sanctions imposed by the bloc on Hungary, meaning the disgraced country has little chance of being suspended from voting in the EU.
Orban, who once campaigned against Soviet communism, came to power in 2010 but has since used his power to pressure courts, media, and nongovernmental groups in ways his opponents say breach EU rules.
He has also maintained an anti-immigration stance, opposing other EU countries such as Germany who want the bloc to take in more Muslim refugees.
“Today’s European Parliament decision was nothing else but a petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians against Hungary,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a news conference in Budapest. “The decision was made in a fraudulent way, and contrary to relevant rules in European treaties.”
Szijjarto said that abstaining votes weren’t counted, which changed the outcome. The final tally was 448-197.
The vote initiates, for the first time, the EU’s punitive process of Article 7, which suspends certain rights from a member state if it breaches the core values of the bloc.
Article 2 of the European Union states that these values are “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”
Article 7 has never been activated before because it is considered a “nuclear option,” although it has been suggested several times. Most recently, Poland came under fire because of proposed changes to its judiciary. Responding to the vote, Poland said it would oppose any sanctions imposed on Hungary.
“Every country has its sovereign right to make internal reforms it deems appropriate,” Poland’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement late on Sept. 12. “Actions aimed against member states serve only to deepen divides in the EU, increasing citizens’ current lack of confidence to European institutions.”
The row over Hungary highlights tensions between nationalist and federalist factions in European countries, best exemplified by Britain, which is leaving the bloc altogether in March 2019. The 197 votes against the punitive procedure highlight a substantial minority, who see Orban as a crusader for the rights of nation states.
In the Netherlands, Greens lawmaker Judith Sargentini helped push the proposal and welcomed the outcome.
“Viktor Orban’s government has been leading the charge against European values by silencing independent media, replacing critical judges, and putting academia on a leash,” she said. “Individuals close to the government have been enriching themselves, their friends and family members at the expense of Hungarian and European taxpayers. The Hungarian people deserve better.”
Human Rights Watch praised the “historic first” represented by the vote, saying in a blog piece: “Now, EU member governments need to confirm there is a threat to EU values and to address the concerns raised by the parliament.”
“The European Parliament decisively acted to stand up for the rights of the citizens it represents, a clear and welcome reminder that rights and values are not negotiable. It is now up to EU member governments to carry this decision forward in the EU Council,” it continued.
Orban flew to Strasbourg on Sept. 11, to try to intervene in the debate, saying in a speech that he wouldn’t give in to “blackmail,” but failed to offer a compromise. Orban wasn’t without support, however, with Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders calling Orban a “hero.”
“He closed the borders for Islamic fortune-seekers. He protects his citizens against terror and defends the identity of his country,” Wilders said.
Reuters contributed to this report.