Magistrate Backs EU Bid to Sanction Hungary Over Rule-of-Law Issues

Police officers control the traffic downtown as part of the containment measures for Covid-19 in Budapest, Hungary, last month. (Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP)

(CN) — Hungary’s far-right government suffered a legal setback Thursday in its effort to stop the European Union from treating it as a dangerously undemocratic nation where the rule of law is in jeopardy.

In September 2018, the European Parliament voted in favor of declaring that, under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s leadership, Hungary was turning into an undemocratic state. The vote triggered sanctions proceedings against Hungary and served as a stern warning to Orban.

After the vote, Hungary sued the European Parliament in the European General Court, arguing the vote was improper because 48 parliamentarians who abstained were not included in the tally.

Two-thirds of the parliament’s members must vote in favor of sanctions proceedings for them to begin, and Hungary argues the vote would have failed to reach that threshold had the abstentions been included as votes. The vote ended up with 448 parliamentarians agreeing to start sanctions proceedings against Hungary and 197 voting against it.

On Thursday, Advocate General Michal Bobek with the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg dismissed Hungary’s argument as invalid. Bobek said the abstentions cannot be viewed as votes either for or against triggering sanctions.

In his legal opinion, Bobek found that “abstentions” and casting a vote “are normally mutually exclusive.”

“Thus, a person abstaining does not wish to be counted as being either in favor of or against a proposition,” he wrote. “He or she simply wishes (or behaves as if) he or she were not there at all.”

In addition, Bobek said parliamentarians were told before the vote that abstentions would not be counted. He also said European treaties do not require the parliament to count abstentions in calculating majorities.

Though not binding on the court, the legal advice provided by advocates general often indicate how the court will rule.

Hungary’s legal maneuvers at EU courts are only part of a wider and more contentious campaign Orban is waging against his adversaries in EU circles who see his government as repeatedly crossing red lines that are fundamental to the bloc’s values.

Orban and his Fidesz party are viewed by many in Europe as a major threat to the EU’s system of laws and governance because of their advocacy for pro-Christian illiberal politics and concentration of power.

Since taking power in 2010, Orban’s Hungary has been accused of mistreating asylum seekers, unlawfully targeting humanitarian groups and a university funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, silencing critical media outlets, and weakening the independence of the judiciary.

Both the hypocrisy and dangers of Orban’s one-party rule came to light in recent days after a prominent member of the Fidesz party, Jozsef Szajer, was caught at a gay orgy in Brussels involving 25 people in violation of coronavirus lockdown rules. Police raided the apartment last Friday in the city’s gay bar district after neighbors complained. Szajer, who is a member of the European Parliament and a founding member of Fidesz, reportedly tried to flee by climbing down a drainpipe and hurting himself. Police also found he was in possession of drugs.

Szajer, who is married to a judge on Hungary’s Constitutional Court, has boasted about drafting a new constitution for Hungary in 2011 that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. He resigned from the European Parliament on Sunday and dropped out of the Fidesz party.

The Fidesz party presents itself as stridently anti-LBGT and for traditional Christian values. Last year its members called for a boycott of Coca-Cola because it used gay couples in an advertising campaign, and Hungary dropped out of Eurovision, a major song contest in Europe, reportedly because top officials and media bosses felt it was “too gay,” according to the Guardian newspaper.

After the Szajer story broke, much of Hungary’s media hardly mentioned the scandal and left out details about Szajer taking part in a gay orgy. Instead, media outlets reported that he resigned because he had broken lockdown restrictions. Pro-government websites even suggested, without any evidence, that foreign intelligence services were involved in targeting Szajer in an effort to hurt Hungary in its rule-of-law clash with EU leaders. Most of Hungary’s media is controlled by allies of Orban or run by the state.

The clash between Orban and EU leaders has reached new heights in recent weeks after Orban and his allies in Poland, where another right-wing nationalist government is in office, refused to sign off on a massive multibillion-dollar EU budget that includes much-needed coronavirus recovery funds. Poland is also facing sanctions from the EU over its backsliding on democratic principles.

Hungary and Poland are holding up passage of the recovery package because the money is tied to rule-of-law mandates, which means Hungary and Poland risk losing the funds unless they agree to demands being made by EU leaders. Hungary and Poland are demanding the rule-of-law provisions are stripped from the budget. To go into effect, all 27 EU member states must agree to pass the budget.  


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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