Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
“The European Community does indeed have a political mission. It is to anchor new and vulnerable democracies more securely to freedom and to the West.”
These are the words of Margaret Thatcher, addressing the Hoover Institution in 1991, shortly after she left office. Under her own steam, and without having to balance civil service interests, as has been alleged about her Bruges Speech in 1988. But when called to this mission by the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee, almost all Conservative MEPs betrayed it.
The issue was a vote asking the European Council, composed of Europe’s elected heads of government, to invoke the EU’s “Article 7” procedure which is there to investigate and correct violations of democratic norms and human rights committed by EU members.
The charges against Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s leader, can be found in a dry report produced by Judith Sargentini, a Dutch MEP. They include:
- interfering with judicial independence;
- using taxpayers’ money for the ruling party’s election expenditure;
- gerrymandering constituencies;
- breaking EU law by removing judges, and not restoring them to their original posts after being ordered to do so b y the European Court of Justice;
- unlawful secret surveillance;
- attempting to expel Hungary’s best institution of higher education, the Central European University;
- “excessive and arbitrary” definitions of what counts as a “church” of religious activity;
- violating the free movement of capital by imposing heavy regulation on civil society NGOs;
- criminalising charities and NGOs who help refugees and advise them of their legal rights;
- systematic segregation of Roma children by misdiagnosing them as mentally disabled;
- imposing arbitrary taxes on organisations holding the “wrong” political opinions, in this case “pro-migration”.
The excuse given was “sovereignty”. But this is specious. Orbán has deprived Hungary’s courts of independence, manipulated the electoral system, taken control of almost all of the media, and turned the state broadcaster into his personal version of The Canary. How can Hungarians get redress from such a rigged system? To see how far the rot has gone, consider that immediately after the European Parliament had censured him, the state broadcaster ran a bulletin pretending he had been feted in Brussels, while Orbán’s spokesman was claiming the censure was illegitimate because it miscounted votes.
Orbán’s government argued (against the plain meaning of the words, and the advice of the European Parliament’s legal service) that abstentions should be interpreted as votes “cast” in opposition to the censure. If we applied that logic to Hungary’s own recent election, where government and opposition each got half of the votes, he would only have support of 38 per cent of Hungarians. Sixty-two per cent would have voted against him. Instead, thanks to a deliberately disproportionate electoral system and gerrymandering, he holds a two-thirds majority in Hungary’s parliament.
And Hungary’s election itself is drowning in murk. The OSCE didn’t carry out a full observation mission, believing it unnecessary in an EU country, but Hungary bans civilian election observers — counting committee members are allowed but have to be appointed by parties — despite a history of allegations of irregularities. There was even, apparently, a case of eight voters registered in a pig sty.
On polling day, people were bussed across the border in Ukraine to cast ballots with falsified ID cards. Like in the postal vote fraud in Birmingham, implausibly large numbers of souls, in some cases more than 100, were registered to vote in small family houses.
The question is, why does Orbán want to win so badly? He’s not unpopular in Hungary and the opposition is hopelessly divided. The answer can be found from these courageous investigations by the Hungarian investigative news site Atlatszo:
Here are the castles and hotels owned by Orbán’s son-in-law, and here is the EU-funded white elephant railway from Orbán’s home village of Felcsút. Atlatszo operates from an opposition centre called Aurora, which the Government are trying again to buy so the opposition can be evicted.
Gerrymandering. EU money for white elephants. Restrictions on religious freedom. Arbitrary taxes on people they don’t like. State control of the media. Is this what our MEPs went into politics to defend?
Hungary signed the Lisbon Treaty of which Article 7 is a part. If it doesn’t like the judgement of its institutions, it is under no obligation to stay in the EU. If he finds its restrictions too onerous, all he has to do is send a letter. With the two-thirds majority Orbán confected, he can make all the necessary constitutional changes.
But all that’s a bit harder if your country is a net recipient of EU money, and your government’s weak institutional controls give you great freedom to spend billions of Euros of structural funds. There is also the question of his Polish allies in the erroneously named ‘Law and Justice’ party, who sit in the same political group as the Conservatives. Law and Justice have conducted a full-scale assault on the Polish Constitution and also turned Polish State TV into a propaganda organ of which the Communist regime would have been proud. Warsaw is also being targeted for Article 7 treatment, and need Budapest to cover their backs.
The Leave campaign told us it was the inability of the EU make sure people like Orbán spent EU funds honestly which provided a reason for Brexit. Voting against his censure thus betrays Thatcher twice: not only of her commitment to democracy and human rights in Eastern Europe, but also to British taxpayers. British taxpayers’ money has enriched the Hungarian elite. So why are Conservative MEPs trying to protect that elite’s leader?