How do you solve a problem called Viktor Orban? Since the government of the combative Hungarian prime minister came to power in 2010, he repeatedly undermined the rule of law at home and challenged some core values of the EU, making him a favorite of Europe's extreme right-wing party in the process.
Brussels has doubted for years what to do, with the fact that Orban's party, Fidesz, is a member of the political party group of the European People's Party (EPP) (including Angela Merkel and Fine Gael's party) within the European Parliament that hinders every move to disapprove of him. No longer.
This week MEPs voted more than the required two-thirds majority to launch a process of sanctioning Hungary under Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon for possible violations of democratic standards, the first time such action has been taken. In an accompanying statement, MEPs said that the Orban government was a "systemic threat" to democracy and the rule of law, destroying the words against an EU Member State.
The unprecedented move was the result of a report by the Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini describing the misery of Hungarian Orban, undermining legal independence, the erosion of media and academic liberties, the detection of migrants and widespread corruption. Sargentini challenged her colleagues on the floor of the parliament: "Will you make sure that the value of this union is more than just words written on a piece of paper?"
The vote is the first step towards possible sanctions against Hungary, which could mean that the country loses its voting rights. But to make that happen, the leaders of the other 27 EU Member States would collectively have to agree to such a punishment. The prospects for this are small, since Poland is currently facing the same process and both Warsaw and Budapest have, not surprisingly, promised to support each other.
Last December, the European Commission started Article 7 proceedings against Poland, largely because of concerns about the rule of law.
The mood to punish Orban was also significant because a majority of the EPP eventually broke the ranks with a man whose provocative behavior and inflammatory rhetoric had become too great a shame for his center-right alliance.
A total of 115 members of the EPP block voted against the Orban government and only 57 voted to support him, with 28 abstentions. In particular Manfred Weber, EPP leader in the European Parliament, and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose own party formed an extreme right-wing coalition government, both supported the move to punish Orban.
The evolution of the Hungarian Prime Minister from a rather conventional center-right politician to a firefighter who is accused of intolerance and flagrant disregard for the rule of law, has seen him through the extreme right in other parts of the EU. Orban praised himself on what he called the & # 39; illiberal democracy & # 39; mentions that he controls at home – he talked about the introduction of the death penalty, banned by the EU – and calls for a cultural counterrevolution & # 39; in all of Europe.
Over the past few months, he has obsessed with the far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, and Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's former lead strategist, who is now working with far-right movements from France to Germany.
It is not surprising that Orban is challenging against possible sanctions. True to his form, he tried not to profile himself as an enemy of European values, but as a main defender.
"This is the first case in the history of Europe where a community condemns its own border guards," he told the European Parliament. So bombast will play well at home, where Orban has won three elections in a row and his party still has a rating of more than 50 sts. The distance between Orban & # 39; s attacks on the EU and the fact that his government receives generous EU funding has not affected the effectiveness of its messages with its home base.
As far as the EPP is concerned, some of its members have called for Fidesz to be completely expelled. Orban has indicated that he could form a new block of extreme right with allies who would take up the long-term alliance in the next year's European elections. His conviviality with Salvini in Rome and warm relations with the Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski can be a sign of how such a front can look like. The struggle of Orban with the mainstream European politics of the body is far from over.