The European court of justice has dismissed an attempt by Hungary to reverse the outcome of a vote by MEPs that for the first time in the EU’s history triggered a process that could lead to a country being stripped of voting rights in Brussels.
A resolution in 2018 raising concerns over the independence of Hungary’s judiciary, the functioning of its constitution and attacks on freedoms of association, religion and expression passed by a majority of votes cast.
Hungary’s government, led by the prime minister, Viktor Orbán – who last week met Boris Johnson in Downing Street – argued in court that the European parliament had committed a “massive fraud” as abstentions should have been taken into account.
A resolution triggering the so-called “nuclear option” of article 7 in the EU treaties, capable of leading to the suspension of certain rights resulting from EU membership, requires a two-thirds majority of votes cast to be passed. Of the votes cast in Hungary’s case, 448 were in favour, 197 were against and 48 MEPs who were present abstained.
Hungary’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, described the vote at the time as “nothing less than the petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians” and demanded that it be annulled.
In its ruling on Thursday, the ECJ said the parliament had followed the correct procedures and that MEPs’ abstentions do not have to be counted in determining whether the two-third majority has been achieved.
It said abstention could not be treated in the same way as a vote cast. The MEPs were notified before the vote that abstentions would not be counted.
The court noted that acts adopted by the parliament under article 7 must also obtain the agreement of a majority of MEPs. Abstentions were taken into account in order to ascertain that the vote in favour represented the views of the majority of MEPs, it found. The court’s decision cannot be appealed.
Hungary and Poland are the only two EU member states currently subject to an article 7 procedure, which could theoretically lead to the suspension of the countries’ voting rights in the bloc’s institutions. The 2018 vote was the first time the European parliament had triggered an article 7 procedure against an EU member state.
In reality, the risk to Budapest and Warsaw of losing their voting rights is slight. It takes the support of 26 of 27 member states to suspend rights, and the two countries have pledged to protect each other from censure.
The difficulty in executing article 7 led in part to the EU agreeing on a new rule of law mechanism this year that permits the European Commission to suspend funding from the bloc’s budget to a member state that is found to be in breach of fundamental democratic values.
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a Green MEP from France, said: “Today’s ruling once again proves that the European parliament was right to overcome the European Commission’s inaction on the rule of law by triggering the article 7 procedure against the Hungarian government.
“This ruling clearly sets out that the commission is not the only ‘guardian of the treaties’ and when there are serious threats to European values, the parliament can and must act. More than ever, the council urgently needs to take up its responsibility to protect the rule of law and take action on Hungary. The parliament has shown its willingness to act for years, yet the council has not organised a single hearing of Hungary since December 2019.”