Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban shows a document during a debate concerning Hungary's situation as part of a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France on September 11, 2018.

© 2018 FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

The European Parliament yesterday voted to censure the Hungarian government for tearing down its democratic institutions in ways that put EU’s core values at risk.

The move was an historic first for the European Parliament, and an important step that brings Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party’s government some much-deserved scrutiny. It’s also an important message for others in Europe who might be tempted to follow his authoritarian path.

Poland’s government is already subject to the same process under the EU Treaty for its attacks on the courts and other democratic checks and balances, in that case initiated by the European Commission.   

The European Parliament was right to act on the deteriorating situation in Hungary. In recent years, the government has undermined the independence of the judiciary, and curbed media independence. It has targeted civil society, including with laws that force organizations to label themselves as foreign funded. In April, it passed another bill that criminalizes independent groups working to protect the rights of asylum seekers and migrants – a legitimate activity in any normal political environment.

In doing this, the government has pushed Hungary off the common EU path of democratic values and respect for human rights and the rule of law.

What comes next? Now EU member governments need to confirm there is a threat to EU values and to address the concerns raised by the parliament. Hungary could ultimately face political sanction, including being stripped of its voting rights if all other EU governments agree – but that’s a way off.

Action against Hungary’s government under the EU Treaty is overdue. The European Commission has tried to address the problematic laws and policies using its legal enforcement powers on case-by-case basis, but the Orbán government has largely ignored the criticism and refused to act on its recommendations.

Until yesterday, more holistic action had been hampered by the fact that the Fidesz Party is a member of the main center-right group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), which until recently helped shield it from criticism and prevented action. That is no longer the case.

The European Parliament decisively acted to stand up for the rights of the citizens it represents, a clear and welcome reminder that rights and values are not negotiable. It is now up to EU member governments to carry this decision forward in the EU Council.