EU lawmakers voted to launch a rare procedure that could lead to sanctions against Viktor Orban's populist Hungarian government for posing a threat to the bloc's democratic values.
The European Parliament voted on Wednesday to sanction Hungary for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption in an unprecedented step that left Prime Minister Viktor Orban isolated from powerful allies.
Hungary said it would seek legal ways to challenge the 448-197 vote it described as "petty revenge."
Delivering more than the two-thirds majority required as many of Orban's allies in the conservative party deserted him, the vote, however, has little chance of ending up with the ultimate penalty of Hungary being suspended from voting in the EU — if nothing else, its Polish ally would veto that.
Political magazine Visegrad Insight Editor-in-chief Wojciech Przybylski explains the European Union's action against Hungary in parliament.
Crusader or divider?
But the 197 votes cast against parliament's first bid to launch the punitive process of the EU treaty's Article 7 highlighted the substantial minority of European opinion who see Orban as a crusader for the rights of nation-states and ethnic majorities against rules of civic behaviour agreed in Brussels.
"Today's European Parliament decision was nothing else but a petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians against Hungary," Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a news conference in Budapest. "The decision was made in a fraudulent way, and contrary to relevant rules in European treaties."
With Britain about to leave the bloc altogether in March and Europeans voting in European Parliament elections in May, the row over Hungary — and Poland, which faces a similar sanctions procedure launched by the executive European Commission in 2017 — highlights tensions between nationalist and federalist camps.
Judith Sargentini, the Dutch Greens lawmaker who steered the proposal through, said after the historic vote, "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.
"Individuals close to the government have been enriching themselves, their friends and family members at the expense of Hungarian and European taxpayers," she said.
TRT World's Kevin Ozebek has the latest on the EU decision against Hungary from Brussels.
'The Hungarian people deserve better'
Sargentini praised support for her motion from much of Orban's European People's Party in the chamber — the EPP includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats — and she called on governments in the EU's Council to now take the unprecedented step of sanctioning a fellow member.
Orban had flown to Strasbourg personally on Tuesday to intervene in the debate, delivering a fiery speech that he would not give in to "blackmail" and describing the motion as an insult to Hungarians. But his failure to offer any compromise cost him support within the EPP, party officials said.
The group may now consider whether to suspend Orban's Fidesz party. Szijjarto said Fidesz was committed to staying in the EPP but would seek ways to transform its stance from the inside.