The ruling comes amid a wide-ranging European Union effort to counter what many see as dangerous democratic backsliding under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
(CN) — Europe’s top court on Thursday tossed out Hungary’s bid to overturn a 2018 vote by the European Parliament that triggered sanctions proceedings against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government for allegedly operating like an undemocratic one-party state.
Under Orban’s far-right rule, Hungary has become a massive headache for the European Union by undermining democracy within his country, befriending Russia and sowing discord within the EU, and spreading his authoritarian brand of politics to other EU nations, most notably Poland and neighboring Slovenia.
In September 2018, the European Parliament voted in favor of triggering sanctions proceedings against Hungary for alleged violations of the EU’s democratic principles. A parliamentary report accused Orban of replacing critical judges, muzzling independent media and unlawfully restricting the work of nongovernmental organizations seeking to help refugees and asylum-seekers. He also was accused of forcing a university supported by billionaire philanthropist and Hungarian-born George Soros to shut its doors.
It was the first time the parliament used its powers under Article 7 of the EU’s founding treaties to begin sanctions proceedings against a country for democratic backsliding.
Previously, the European Commission had initiated Article 7 sanctions proceedings against Poland, where another ultra-conservative government is accused of undermining democracy at home.
But Hungary challenged the legitimacy of the vote, arguing that the European Parliament needed to count the 48 lawmakers who cast abstentions. To trigger Article 7, the parliament needed a two-thirds majority, which it got when 448 parliamentarians voted in favor of sanctions and 197 voted against them.
On Thursday, the European Court of Justice threw out Hungary’s challenge, saying the parliament carried out the vote correctly. The court noted that lawmakers were told before the vote that abstentions were not going to be counted.
The court said members of parliament who “decided to abstain from that vote acted with full knowledge of the facts, since it is not disputed that they had been informed in advance that abstentions would not be counted as votes cast.”
The ruling said not counting the abstentions “from the calculation of votes cast is not contrary to the principle of democracy.”
Thursday’s ruling sets aside what was seen as a weak legal argument by Hungary but which can be seen as part of its strategy to slow down the sanctions proceedings, which are themselves widely viewed as going nowhere.
That’s because under the EU treaties, a member state can only face punishment, including the possibility of losing its voting rights on EU matters, if every other EU state agrees on the sanctions. This has become a legal conundrum for the EU because Poland and Hungary have vowed to shield each other against sanctions. A sanctions vote would be taken by the European Council, a body made up of the EU heads of state.
With its hands tied, EU lawmakers and legal experts are considering other ways to punish Hungary and Poland, including the possibility of making countries with Article 7 proceedings against them unable to vote on such votes. This route could be challenged at the Court of Justice, but even if it is deemed legal there is a strong possibility other EU nations not facing Article 7 sanctions and where similar democratic backsliding is taking place, such as Slovenia and Bulgaria, would vote against the sanctions.
Last year, exasperated by the breakdown of democratic principles in EU countries and the likely failure of the lengthy Article 7 proceedings, EU leaders devised a new way to compel countries to uphold the rule of law by threatening to withhold EU funds from governments deemed to be eroding democratic values. This instrument has not been tested yet and how effective it may be is uncertain.
In hailing the ruling, Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a parliamentarian with the Greens, said the court had upheld the parliament’s right to trigger Article 7.
She said parliament was forced to do that after the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, failed to take action against Hungary, as it had done with Poland.
“This ruling clearly sets out that the commission is not the only ‘guardian of the treaties’ and when there are serious threats to European values, the parliament can and must act,” Delbos-Corfield said in a statement.
A former Green party member, Judith Sargentini, was key in getting the parliament to trigger Article 7. Sargentini delivered an in-depth report to parliament on what was happening in Hungary.
Some political observers believe the commission was reluctant to open sanctions against Hungary because of political bias. The commission is largely run by politicians linked to the largest bloc in EU politics, a grouping of conservative parties known as the European People’s Party, and Orban’s Fidesz party was one of its members until recently. Orban was forced out earlier this year, making it more likely for him to come under new pressure now that the EPP no longer has him as a member.
Delbos-Corfield blasted the European Council for not pushing ahead with the sanctions proceedings against Hungary. She said the council has not held a hearing on Hungary’s case since December 2019.
“The state of the rule of law in Hungary is worsening by the day,” she said. “The Fidesz government’s conscious strategy to dismantle democracy and undermine fundamental rights affects all citizens and has started spreading to other EU member states.”
The parliament is scheduled to hold its own hearings on Poland and Hungary on June 22.
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga called the Luxembourg court’s ruling “completely unacceptable and shocking.”
She said the parliament’s vote was in breach of the EU’s treaties and the parliament’s rules of procedure. If abstentions had been counted, she said the vote would have failed. She called Sargentini’s report, which also accused Orban’s government of political corruption, “politically biased” and without merit.
“As before, in the spirit of loyal cooperation, Hungary is ready for a dialogue on issues related to the rule of law,” Varga said. “However, we will keep rejecting politically motivated witch hunts.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.