BUDAPEST — While the European Parliament investigates democracy and the rule of law in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is getting its retaliation in first.
Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green MEP leading the investigation, this week made a three-day visit to the country that she wanted to keep low-key. Sargentini did not announce the trip in advance to avoid stoking tensions between Brussels and Budapest over accusations by senior European politicians and rights activists that Hungary is weakening the rule of law, breaching human rights and curbing academic freedom.
But the ruling Fidesz party had other ideas about the trip, making the visit public,branding Sargentini a member of a network run by its nemesis, Hungarian-American financier George Soros, and dismissing her report even before it’s been written.
Sargentini’s investigation will inform a European Parliament decision on whether to launch the so-called Article 7 process against Hungary, which could ultimately lead to Budapest losing its right to vote on EU decisions. Although that final step is unlikely, as all other EU members would have to vote in favor, even a decision to begin the process would damage Hungary’s international standing.
Hungarian officials are already questioning the report’s — and Sargentini’s — credibility.
Sargentini, for her part, insisted she came to Hungary to make up her own mind about the state of democracy and human rights in the country.
“In order to gain a better understanding of the situation, you need to be there, you need to look people in the eye,” she said in an interview with POLITICO in Budapest.
Sargentini began her three-day trip on Monday at the Hungarian-Serbian border, where she visited the controversial Röszke transit zone, a closed container camp for asylum-seekers that is off-limits to journalists.
“I talked to some unaccompanied minors … those are boys that should not be locked up behind barbed wire, but those are boys that need to be hugged,” she said.
Sargentini, who is producing her report for the Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, also visited the Central European University in Budapest and met representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and the minority Roma community.
But Hungarian officials are already questioning the report’s — and Sargentini’s — credibility.
“The facts, the reality don’t interest the committee’s members at all,” Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said in a television interview on Tuesday, referring to Sargentini’s visit as “theater.”
“I think that the report is in effect done already, and obviously Hungary will be condemned in an extraordinary way,” he said, alleging that the committee’s process is part of a politically motivated attack by both the European Commission and European Parliament against Hungary for its migration policy — which rejects EU-mandated quotas for asylum-seekers and backs tough border measures.
Orbán has spoken out against the European Parliament as an institution, accusing MEPs of being bought.
“When something happens in Hungary which hurts the interest of the great powers, big companies, or big people, then the Parliament is the first which leaps and attacks Hungary,” he said in an interview in early December with pro-government television station EchoTV.
György Schöpflin, a Fidesz MEP, said the Article 7 process was politically biased.
“If one’s aim is to single out a member state on grounds of alleged malfeasance and to generate left-wing unity, then the procedure could be said to be suitable,” he told POLITICO.
Sargentini said she and the Hungarian government had a “difference of understanding” about the Article 7 process, which can be triggered if the EU believes its fundamental values are at risk in a member country. In December, the European Commission started the process for the first time — against Poland.
The Hungarian government mistakenly believed that issues that were already the subject of legal action by the European Commission should not be considered, Sargentini said.
“An Article 7 procedure is [about] European law and national law, and fundamental rights, and European values, and the state of democracy, and how it all comes together,” she said.
Sargentini said she held cordial talks with Levente Magyar, Hungary’s minister of state of parliamentary affairs, but he questioned the committee’s ability to produce a balanced report. After the meeting, Magyar told reporters that Sargentini lacks basic information.
Orbán has some prominent defenders in the ranks of the EPP.
A European Parliament resolution from May specifies in detail the areas of concern Sargentini is charged with investigating, including freedom of expression, academic freedom, the rights of refugees and minorities, judicial independence and allegations of corruption.
Sargentini’s challenges go beyond withering criticism from the Hungarian government. In order for her report to be approved in the committee, she will need to win the support of at least some members of the European People’s Party (EPP) political family, which includes Fidesz.
Orbán has some prominent defenders in the ranks of the EPP.
“Viktor Orbán clearly respects the rule of law,” Horst Seehofer, the leader of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU, declared at a party conference last week attended by the Hungarian prime minister.
Sargentini will present her draft report to the committee in March. A vote in committee is set for June and a plenary vote is scheduled for September. Sargentini acknowledged that one reason for that schedule was to make sure the voting took place after Hungary’s general election on April 8.
“I don’t want to influence the elections, or even give the suggestion that we are influencing the elections,” she said.
But Sargentini and the European Parliament may have an impact on the election nonetheless — as Orbán can rally support against their investigation.
“I think it is a good opportunity for him to campaign against the European Parliament,” said a senior Fidesz official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.