BRUSSELS — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suffered a rare political setback Wednesday as European Union lawmakers voted to pursue unprecedented action against his government for allegedly undermining the bloc's democratic values and rule of law. Hungary called the action fraudulent and vowed to challenge it.
Despite the official rebuke, Orban is showing no signs of compromise.
While he seeks to keep his ruling Fidesz party within the conservative European People's Party, or EPP, the largest and most powerful group in the European assembly, its possible ouster may push him closer to other far-right groups in Europe, like the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) or France's National Rally led by Marine le Pen.
The lawmakers voted 448-197 in favor of a report recommending the launch of a so-called Article 7 procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Hungary's EU voting rights. Needing a two-thirds majority to pass, it was approved by 69.4 percent of the lawmakers.
For years, Orban had been able to deflect much of the international condemnation aimed at him. Critics say Hungary's electoral system favors the governing parties; media freedoms and judicial independence are dwindling; corruption and the enrichment of Orban allies with EU and state funds are on the rise; asylum-seekers and refugees are mistreated; and there are efforts to limit the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
While Orban occasionally made minor amendments to disputed laws and policies to appease the EU, the essence of his efforts to centralize power within his own ever-expanding office has not really changed since he returned to government in 2010 with a two-thirds majority. Hungary quickly adopted a new constitution following eight calamitous years of Socialist Party governments that led the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
"Orban will continue to represent the hard-line policies sliding toward an authoritarian regime, as until now," said Andras Biro-Nagy, co-director of Policy Solutions, a political research institute in Budapest. "Should he exit the EPP, he may believe that he has an even freer hand to bring increasingly restrictive policies which constrict the democratic environment."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, echoing Orban's longtime position that allowed him to win a third consecutive term in April, called the vote "petty revenge" against Hungary for its tough anti-migrant policies.
"This decision condemning Hungary and the Hungarian people was made because we Hungarians have demonstrated that migration is not a necessary process and that migration can be stopped," Szijjarto said in Budapest.
On Orban's orders, fences were built in 2015 on Hungary's southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to divert the flow of migrants, and the country has adopted increasingly restrictive asylum rules.
Orban has framed the migration issue, which he predicts will be the main theme of European elections next year, as one that goes beyond party lines. He met with Italian Interior Minister Mateo Salvini last month in Milan. He referred to Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party and a staunch opponent of migration, as his "hero."
If Orban and his Fidesz party are ousted from the EPP, he is likely to look to strengthen his links to the far-right in Europe. For now, Orban says he does not want to leave the EPP but simply reform it into a party opposing migration.
"Orban will invest even more energies than until now to build a 'Plan B' with the extreme-right leaders in Europe, from Salvini to Le Pen to Germany's AfD," said Biro-Nagy. "Orban's true friends are no longer in the EPP; his true friends are in the European extreme-right."
Hungary claimed its defeat in the European Parliament involved "massive fraud" since 48 abstentions weren't counted in the final tally, which made it easier to reach the needed majority. Szijjarto said Hungary was considering legal options to appeal the result.
However, according to Article 354 of the Lisbon Treaty, reforms adopted in 2007 after the EU expanded from 15 to 27 members, "for the purposes of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, the European Parliament shall act by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast." This would seemingly exclude abstentions from the tally.
Orban's critics and opponents were elated by the outcome. Judith Sargentini, who presented the report prepared by the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, called it "a historic result for Hungarian and for European citizens."
"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," Sargentini said. "The Hungarian people deserve better. They deserve freedom of speech, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice and equality, all of which are enshrined in the European treaties."
Several NGOs targeted by the Orban government with restrictive rules — including a special tax on activities considered as promoting immigration and the criminalization of the aiding of asylum-seekers and refugees — also hailed the vote.
"We welcome the European Parliament's decision to defend the rule of law and confront the Hungarian government's attempts to shut down civil society and independent voices in the media and academia," said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute. "MEPs across the political spectrum have taken a historic stand in defending the EU's democratic values and the rights of its citizens."
Grabbe's organization is part of the Open Society Foundations set up by Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, an ideological opponent of Orban and blamed by the Hungarian leader for promoting mass immigration into Europe. Soros repeatedly has denied the allegations.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which offers legal aid to asylum seekers and refugees and has been a frequent target of Orban's criticism, said the EU vote "has made it clear that illiberal democracy is against the core values of the European Union."
Even EPP leader Manfred Weber, who earlier was supportive of Orban and is seeking to become the European Commission president next year, said he had voted for triggering Article 7.
"I have always been in favor of building bridges and I want to continue to do so, but yesterday (Tuesday) I didn't see any readiness from the Hungarian PM to make a move towards his EU partners and address our concerns," Weber tweeted.
While Weber had urged him to show a willingness to compromise on some issues, Orban said his policies wouldn't change.
"I have nothing to compromise about since the questions they objected to were decided by the Hungarian people," Orban said Tuesday in Strasbourg, France, after the debate on Hungary. "There is nothing to talk about."