CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Last year it was Poland, now it’s Hungary’s turn to face sanctions from the European Union. The European Parliament voted Wednesday to initiate proceedings to sanction Hungary, a member state accused of passing laws that undermine the rule of law and violate democratic values and human rights.
The European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — initiated sanctions proceedings against Poland last December over similar allegations.
The move to sanction member states is uncharted territory for the European Union. The Wednesday vote was the first time the parliament voted to trigger sanctions, as stipulated under Article 7 of the European treaty. It’s been dubbed the “nuclear option.”
Any sanctions, though, will need to be approved by unanimous vote by the European Council, a body made up of the heads of state. In this case, Poland and Hungary would be expected to block punitive measures. Sanctions could result in the suspension of voting rights in EU affairs.
“It is unlikely to lead to sanctions,” said Otilia Dhand, an analyst with Teneo Intelligence, a London-based political risk analysis firm.
In parliament, a two-thirds majority was needed to trigger the sanctions proceedings. The vote was 448 in favor and 197 against, with 48 abstentions.
Hungary said it would challenge the vote and called it fraudulent because the abstentions were not included in the tally.
The EU is taking aim at right-wing nationalist political parties in Poland and Hungary that many politicians, attorneys, watchdog groups and nongovernmental groups say are seeking to establish authoritarian regimes.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the hard-right and pro-Christian leader of the Fidesz Party, has been accused of inhumane anti-immigration policies, attacks on the press and academic freedom, undermining the rule of law and corruption, since he took office in 2010.
Orban defended himself before the EU Parliament on Tuesday and called the parliament’s actions “blackmail.”
On Wednesday, Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs, called the parliamentary vote “petty revenge of the pro-immigration politicians.” He called the accusations against Hungary false, and based on “the opinions of NGOs that are openly opposed to the government,” in a ministry news release.
Orban is particularly aggressive toward George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist. Orban accuses Soros, and the nongovernmental organizations he supports in Hungary, of promoting mass immigration into Europe. Soros denies the allegations.
Orban has targeted NGOs with restrictive rules, including a special tax on activities considered as promoting immigration. Hungary also has a law that criminalizes giving aid to asylum-seekers and refugees, and has erected fences along its borders to stop them.
Udo Bullmann, the president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, an EU parliamentary group, hailed the vote as a stand against authoritarianism.
“For seven years, the Hungarian government under Viktor Orbán has attempted to crack down on independent organizations that provide checks and balances on their power,” he said in a statement. “Today we have said that enough is enough. We will not watch Hungary slip into authoritarian rule.”
The vote against Orban opened up cracks within Europe’s largest parliamentary group, the center-right European People’s Party. Orban’s party is a member of EPP and many EPP parliamentarians — including Manfred Weber, the head of the party — voted for sanctions.
Szijjarto, the Hungarian foreign minister, said in the statement that the vote revealed “major differences within the EPP.” He said the fight was about making sure the EPP “return to the Christian democratic path, which means preserving European identity and insisting on Christian democratic traditions.”
Judith Sargentini, a Dutch parliamentarian whose committee report on Hungary’s alleged violations was the basis of Wednesday’s vote, was applauded after the vote count.
“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,” Sargentini said, according to The Associated Press. “The Hungarian people deserve better. They deserve freedom of speech, nondiscrimination, tolerance, justice and equality, all of which are enshrined in the European treaties.”