Conservative MEPs have confirmed they will oppose moves to sanction Hungary’s right-wing government for persistent violations of EU rules in a closely-watched European Parliament vote.
MEPs will tomorrow vote on a report calling for the triggering of Article 7 of the EU treaty – a little-used legal procedure which could ultimately see Hungary’s EU voting rights suspended.
The report needs the support of two thirds of MEPs to be successful and, with the result too close to call, the intentions of British Conservatives have come under scrutiny.
The Conservative group, which consists of 19 MEPs, have ended speculation and confirmed they will vote against the report, arguing it interferes with the sovereignty of member states.
That position will prove controversial after Human Rights Watch last week called on Conservatives to “stand up for democracy” and “be on the right side of history” in the vote.
“Winston Churchill understood that supporting democratic institutions in continental Europe is in Britain’s best interests,” said its deputy director, Benjamin Ward.
“British Conservatives in the European Parliament should vote “yes” to defend those same values from the attacks they face in Hungary today.”
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who won re-election in April, has described the country under his leadership as an “illiberal democracy.”
The report under consideration criticises his government’s restrictions on the freedom of the media, academics and NGOs, its ill treatment of minority groups, refugees and asylum seekers, and its meddling with the judicial and electoral systems.
Its findings have been backed by the European Commission.
Some have suggested the Conservative’s position on tomorrow’s vote is linked to Brexit negotiations.
Judith Sargentini, the Dutch MEP who authored the report on Hungary’s government, said: “Theresa May feels supported by Viktor Orbán in Brexit talks and that is very interesting.”
But Dan Dalton, the Conservative’s home affairs spokesman in the European Parliament, said: “This report crosses a boundary by politicising what should be a purely legal matter.
“If the EU’s treaties have been breached by any Member State, it is for the European Commission to build a legal case against it.
“MEPs have no role to play in the process and their involvement leaves any subsequent legal action open to the accusation that it is politically motivated.”
Their decision was made even more contentious when members of the EPP, the centre-right political group of Orban’s Fidesz party, announced Tuesday that they would support the report.
Austrian prime minister Sebastian Kurz, another anti-immigration hardliner, said: “There can be no compromises on the rule of law and democracy.”
The position of other EPP parties will be crucial in deciding whether the report receives a two-thirds majority.
If it does, it will then be up to the European Council, which is made up heads of governments, to decide on what action to take.
Orban travelled to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to defend his record and used his speech to paint Wedneday’s vote as an attack on his country.
“Hungary will not accede to this blackmailing, Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and … if needed we will stand up to you,” he said.
He received support from UKIP’s Nigel Farage who urged him to “join the Brexit club.”
But socialist group leader Udo Bullman said: “We’re protecting the interests of citizens in claiming their European rights.
“This isn’t directed against Hungary or the Hungarians. The aim is to protect them.”