Hungary has reacted furiously to a vote in the European Parliament that declared that the country was no longer a “full democracy” and that the European Union needed to act.
Their response on Thursday came after MEPs voted 433 in favour, 123 against, in favour of the resolution.
It described Hungary as “a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” in “serious breach” of EU democratic norms.
Lawmakers raised concerns about Hungary’s constitutional and electoral systems, judicial independence, possible corruption, public procurement irregularities, LGBTQ+ rights, as well as media, academic and religious freedoms.
The country is ruled by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who maintains close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The vote was largely symbolic and does not change the course of EU decision-making, which requires unanimity of all 27 member states – including Hungary – to adopt positions on major issues, such as sanctions on Russia.
But Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told reporters in Budapest: “I consider it an insult against a Hungarian person if someone questions Hungary’s capacity for democracy.”
He said he was astonished that some in Brussels and Strasbourg insisted on “belittling” his country, he added.
Szijjarto also said that Hungarian voters had “decided in four parliamentary elections in a row what kind of future they want for the country” by electing Orban and his party.
“We resent that some people in Strasbourg and Brussels think that the Hungarian people are not mature enough to decide their own future,” he added.
With their vote, the EU lawmakers endorsed a parliamentary report that said Hungary had been backsliding on democratic and fundamental rights since 2018 through the “deliberate and systematic efforts of the Hungarian government”.
The lack of action by EU institutions including the commission, which acts as “guardian” of the EU treaties enshrining democratic standards, had exacerbated the degradation, said the report.
The vote, which came during a plenary session in Strasbourg, France, does not impose any penalty on Orban’s government, nor does it bind other EU countries into taking any particular actions.
Concerns over corruption
It was also is the latest in a series of showdowns between the EU’s institutions and Orban’s government in Budapest.
Hungary has routinely blocked joint statements, decisions and events, ranging from high-level NATO meetings with Ukraine to an EU vote on corporate tax and a common EU position on an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire.
EU countries have been treading a careful line around Hungary because of the need to win its assent on major decisions.
But diplomats privately are frustrated with Orban’s cosy relationship with the Kremlin and his blocking of further sanctions on Moscow.
The commission has likewise been careful to avoid overt criticism, but unease over Hungary’s swerve away from rule of law, particularly in failing to curb corruption, is becoming more evident.
Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday, in her State of the European Union address to the European Parliament, that the EU “must fight for our democracies”.
Her EU executive would work to protect the member states “from the external threats they face, and from the vices that corrode them from within”, she said.
Although she did not name Hungary directly in this context, she pledged legislative action to step up the fight against corruption, including against “illicit enrichment, trafficking in influence and abuse of power”.
Her EU justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, told MEPs in a debate on rule of law breaches in Hungary that the commission “shares a large number of concerns expressed by the European Parliament” regarding Budapest.
The European Parliament in 2018 launched a procedure against the risk Hungary posed to European democratic values.
The EU has also earmarked 5.8bn euros ($5.8bn) for Hungary from its COVID-19 recovery fund. But Budapest’s spending plan for the funds has not been signed by Brussels due to corruption concerns.
In theory, the mechanism can lead to Hungary losing its right to vote in the Council of the EU, where member states adopt decisions affecting the bloc.