IN a bleak world at home and abroad we need to take our victories where we find them, and this week has been a good week for the EU and for liberal democracy.
First published in The National, 20 September 2018
Prime minister Viktor Orbán of the ruling Hungarian Fidesz party came to Strasbourg to debate the criticisms in a resolution drawn up by Dutch MEP and my group colleague Judith Sargentini. This is a man who has called migrants poison, referred to “Muslim invaders” and peddled anti-Semitic myths about George Soros. His democratically elected government has forcibly retired judges, banned international NGOs from working in Hungary, built a fence to keep out refugees and lots more besides.
As one academic succinctly put it “the EU is like a club with a strong bouncer, but little security once you’re inside the venue”. The present Hungarian government has not been abiding by the values that make up the EU, and the EU, slowly, had got round to acting. The Parliament, for the first time ever, was to debate the triggering of Article 7 proceedings, effectively putting Hungary in a sin bin until it plays by the rules.
On the day, he simply fell back on tired rhetoric asserting that the report “insults the honour of the Hungarian nation” whilst feeding a victim complex. He fell back on anti-immigration rhetoric, repeatedly talking about migrants whilst ignoring all other criticisms, and proudly proclaiming that “the Hungarian people have decided not to be a nation of migrants”.
Hungary signed up to the values of the EU. These include the rights of individuals and the EU institutions must defend them where possible, particularly in the face of the threats we now face. Europe is a continent of migrants and if our history shows us anything it is that narrow-minded, anti-immigrant rhetoric always ends badly.
Unsurprisingly his speech fell flat. MEPs from the centre-right EPP, the centre-left S&D, the liberal ALDE and Green groups all condemned his government’s actions. With 448 votes in favour the European Parliament voted to recommend the initiation of Article 7 proceedings. This is a strong sign that EU values must be respected and could result in Hungary being stripped of its right to vote in the Council of the European Union.
The details of the resolution are grim reading. The Budgetary Control Committee recommends deduction of EU funding to Hungary over concerns that much of it ends up in the pockets of Orbán’s cronies; the Culture Committee condemns attacks on academic freedom; the Constitutional Affairs Committee condemns infringement of judicial independence; the Committee on Women’s Rights condemns reversals on gender equality.
This week’s debate got to the heart of what the EU is for. To what extent should the sovereign EU states be able to pick and choose from the rules they all voluntarily signed up to? To what extent should the rest of us be able to call them on it? Can solidarity be imposed?
None of these have a simple answer and in the EU everything is connected, that’s the point. Recently, in Greece a profligate series of governments tipped their economy into chaos, and it was only EU support that avoided a worse disaster. But could, should, the EU have been gentler with the Greek people? I would say yes, but then, why should taxpayers in Scotland pay for irresponsible profligacy at the other end of the continent?
Catalonia too has shown that the EU is ultimately a club of member states and there is work to do. There’s a democratic discussion that needs to be promoted between Barcelona and Madrid and the EU has not stepped up, though I hope it may yet. At least on Hungary, this week the Parliament has stood up for democracy and the rule of law.
However, in the face of this overwhelming display of what the EU can be, there were still 197 members of our Parliament that opposed taking action against Orbán. My greatest shock comes not from Ukip and the Front National, you’d expect it of them, but from the UK Conservatives who were the only governing right-wing party to support him.
They voted to support him in the face of everything he stands for. My most charitable explanation is that this shows the chronic weakness of the UK post-Brexit as its Government desperately cuddles up to anyone who might provide some help irrespective of morals or long-term strategic cost. At its worst this is a sign that the Tories are shifting hard to the right and anything goes.
I think it is the latter and increasingly I do not think you can describe them a centre-right party. The clues are in the company they keep. It was because of an ill-thought-out commitment to appease the right in David Cameron’s 2005 leadership campaign that the party left the EPP group and set up their own. Earlier this year they invited the anti-migrant Swedish-Democrats to join them – the party that was the focus of so much concern in last weekend’s Swedish election.
Unfortunately, the rhetoric of our Prime Ministers fits with that of the hard right. Cameron talked about “swarms of migrants”. In the debate this week Nicolas Bay of the French Front National said that “the EU promotes multiculturalism, against out values”. How is that so different from May’s “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”?
I fear for what the Tories may turn into. I fear for what that means for the rest of us if we’re stuck in a Brexit Britain run by them. Right now there is a fight going on in constituency branches across the UK. This is a fight for the soul of their party and I fear the old-fashioned “small c” liberal Conservatives are losing. The MEPs Richard Ashworth and Julie Girling voted against Orbán but they have already felt the need to leave the Conservative group. Only one actual Tory MEP voted against Orbán and I want to end by praising Nosheena Mobarik, Conservative MEP for Scotland. She not only voted with us and her conscience, she defied what I’d guess was a pretty tough London-imposed group whip. I hope her colleagues across the UK will look to her action, ask themselves some hard questions and set about challenging those who are changing the Tory party into something they find unthinkable. Their silent acquiescence has implications for all of us.