Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy, the European parliament has said in a powerful symbolic vote against Viktor Orbán’s government.
In a resolution backed by 81% of MEPs present to vote, the parliament stated that Hungary had become a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy”, citing a breakdown in democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law.
While the vote has no practical effect, it heightens pressure on EU authorities in Brussels not to disburse billions in EU cash to Hungary that is being withheld over concerns about corruption.
Hungary is battling to persuade the European Commission to release €4.64bn in Covid recovery funds, frozen for more than a year. Budapest is also trying to stave off a separate legal procedure that could lead to deductions from €24.3bn of cohesion funds, money for infrastructure and economic development.
The European Commission is expected to propose cutting 70% of Hungary’s cohesion funds on Sunday, but will also open the door to a compromise, according to two MEPs familiar with discussions. “More or less what we hear is that the commission will propose … these sanctions or financial measures,” said Moritz Körner, a German MEP, who has been briefed by the commission.
In a recent internal paper, commission officials suggested there was a “very significant” risk over Hungary’s management of EU funds, citing breaches in public interest rules and an unusually high number of contracts awarded to a single bidder – a red flag for transparency watchers. The paper, which has been removed from the commission’s website, suggests a 70% cut in funds as “proportionate” to the risk.
Hungary will be given until mid-November to get its house in order. After a charm offensive in Brussels, Hungary’s government is expected next week to propose a raft of laws to combat corruption. Critics fear the commission is ready to accept cosmetic changes to defuse the conflicts over EU funds.
“The commission has made a half-hearted deal with the Hungarian government on the kind of change they want to see,” said Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP, also briefed on the commission’s plans. “There is a very short timeframe and … to expect that the damage that Orbán has done with [his] constitutional majority over 12 years, can now be repaired in a matter of weeks, or a couple of months, I think is optimistic to put it mildly.”
Orbán has been in office since 2010 and held a two-thirds parliamentary majority for much of this time.
A European Commission spokesperson declined to comment, but said it was analysing “the remedial measures” submitted by Hungary and had until 21 September to determine the next step.
The European parliament’s resolution, which points to “the risks of clientelism, favouritism and nepotism in high-level public administration”, however, will make any climbdown on the protection of EU funds more difficult.
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, the French MEP who drafted the resolution, described the conclusions as clear and irrevocable. “Hungary is not a democracy. It was more urgent than ever for the parliament to take this stance, considering the alarming rate at which the rule of law is backsliding in Hungary.”
She added that “the large majority of MEPs supporting this position in the European parliament is unprecedented”. Of the 534 MEPs present for the vote in Strasbourg, 433 voted in favour, 123 against and 28 abstained.
The large majority was aided by Orbán’s decision in 2021 to quit the political family of Europe’s centre-right, the European People’s party (EPP). The EPP had previously offered Hungary’s Fidesz party some protection from critical votes, but Orbán withdrew his party before it was pushed out by centre-right MEPs.
The vote comes almost exactly four years after MEPs voted to trigger disciplinary action against Hungary, a decision that ultimately lies in the hands of the 26 other EU member states, who have mostly shown little appetite for conflict with Budapest.
MEPs, who have no power to deny funds to Hungary, have blamed the EU council of ministers and the European Commission for alleged inaction, a point made clear in the resolution. The MEPs expressed “deep regret that the lack of decisive EU action has contributed to a breakdown in democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary, turning the country into a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy”.
The parliament’s damning conclusion was based on reports from bodies belonging to the Council of Europe, as well as case law from the EU’s court of justice and the separate European court of human rights.
MEPs also cited the verdict of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which reported in April that Hungary’s election that returned Orbán to power for a fourth straight term was “marred by the absence of a level playing field”. The OSCE sent a fully fledged mission to Hungary, an almost unprecedented step for an EU member state.
The report also noted the concerns of Hungarian judges over judicial independence in their country, after numerous changes by the Orbán government, including the appointment of supreme court judges outside normal procedures.
The measure was opposed by MEPs from Eurosceptic and far-right parties. In a statement included in the draft resolution, they argued the conclusions were “based on subjective opinions and politically biassed statements” that reflected “vague concerns, value judgments and double standards”.
These MEPs also claimed that the report was based on “cases that were settled a long time ago by the responsible bodies, or which concern issues that form part of public debate and belong to the sole competence of member states”.