Last Friday, the MEPs passed a resolution condemning the Hungarian government's actions during the coronavirus crisis as “totally incompatible with European values.”
It pleaded with the European Commission to look at whether Hungary had breached EU law, and urged the Council to put Article 7 (where EU countries can have their membership rights, such as voting, suspended because they don't meet the bloc's core values
For the moment, MEPs' pleas are likely to go unheard. After all, in the middle of a pandemic, for Brussels helping to fight a virus and battling to keep countries' economics alive, ongoing rule of law issues in Budapest are going to struggle to get on the agenda.
But when this crisis passes – and it will – what can an increasingly frustrated and angry EU do?
Well, it can’t kick them out. While Article 50 allows for a country to leave, there is no such mechanism for forcing a member state out.
The Article 7 process, which suspends members' voting rights, is also unlikely to go anywhere. Another member state can simply veto it. Hungary has at least the backing of Poland and the Czech Republic.
The quickest and most-effective method could be to use the next EU budget to withhold financial payments, by qualified majority. Or allow the Commission to directly control the reallocation of funds, rather than funnelling them through Budapest. Hungary is a big recipient of these funds – reducing them would hurt. The European Union could also help foster and support democracy movements inside Hungary. The institutions could provide funding directly to municipalities and local governments as well as resources to trade unions, universities, and citizens' movements.
And finally, surely if Europe’s leaders were serious about sending a strong message to Orbán – the EPP, the union's largest political group would simply force out Fidesz.
Clearly, none of these decisions are easy, nor straightforward. But what’s the alternative? Sit back? Say nothing? Pretend it’s not happening? What would that then say about the EU’s values? Indeed, what would it say about the EU project itself?
Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.
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