Brexit pushes Theresa May into alliance with Hungary's right-wing populists as Tories vote against sanctions

Hungarian foreign minister comes to UK aid on Brexit hours after Tories side with populists

Jon Stone
Wednesday 27 June 2018 08:25
Viktor Orban re-elected as Prime Minister of Hungary

A nascent alliance has formed between Britain and Hungary’s right-wing populist government as Theresa May’s Brexit government searches for friends across Europe.

Conservative MEPs this week voted against censuring Hungary’s government for breaching European values following its crackdown on NGOs, attacks on “Muslim invaders”, and a state-backed allegedly antisemitic campaign.

Hours after the European Parliament vote, Hungary’s foreign minister did a media round slamming Brussels for its treatment of the UK, and warning that not doing a deal with the UK would be “devastating” for Europe.

The European Parliament’s home affairs committee voted by 37 to 19 in favour of triggering Article 7 against Hungary – a provision which has already been used against Poland after a crackdown on the rule of law by that country’s government.

Tory MEPs joined Ukip, as well as continental far-right parties including the French Front National, Austria’s FPOe, and Sweden Democrats in voting against. The motion was backed by practically all the mainstream centre right, centre left, liberals, greens and left-wingers on the committee.

Conservative Home Affairs spokesman Daniel Dalton MEP, who voted against recommending the triggering of Article 7, attacked the “one sided” criticism of Hungary and said the EU should stay out of “domestic political controversies”.

“Article 7 should only be used as a very last resort on strictly legal grounds upon the decision of the European Council and the European Commission,” he said.

This is a damning indictment of the state of British European policy and completely destroys any credibility the Tories might have left. 

Sophie Int Veld, liberal MEP

“The extremely one sided report I voted against today was an inappropriate attempt by the European parliament to insert itself into domestic political battles.

“Recent attempts to raise domestic controversies to a European level are both wrong and counter-productive, alienating many citizens who feel their countries are being unfairly targeted by the European institutions.”

Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, was quick to reciprocate the Conservatives' support in Brussels, breaking ranks from other EU countries and telling the Daily Mail: “If we are not able to come to a deal with a country that represents 14 per cent – or one seventh – of our economy, that would lead to a situation that would be very devastating for the EU.”

Mr Szijjarto, a leading member of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, went on the BBC’s Newsnight programme the same day to defend his country’s record.

Asked whether he stood by Mr Orban’s claim that refugees were “Muslim invaders” bringing terrorism to Europe and that his policy was based on xenophobia, he said: “Calling a country xenophobic is an insult, especially if you put it into consideration Hungary. No one can take away the right to decide with whom we would like to live together.

“Yes, it is our intention to keep Hungary a Hungarian country and yes we do not agree with those ones who say that multiculturalism is by definition good.” He added that he stood by “of course all the statements of my prime minister”.

Following the recommendation to trigger Article 7 against Hungary by the MEP committee the issue will now be voted on by all MEPs. Given the broad support amongst the largest political groups in the parliament it is expected to pass.

What is still needed to complete a deal with the EU?

Sophie Int Veld, a senior liberal MEP, criticised the Tories’ decision to back Hungary, warning: “This is a damning indictment of the state of British European policy and completely destroys any credibility the Tories might have left.

“On the one hand calling for sanctions against Putin, on the other hand supporting one of his closest allies in the EU. Even Conservative governments of the recent past were always promoters of democracy and the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe, but in providing cover for Orban’s descent to authoritarianism, they have today trampled on this legacy.

“Prime Minister May tells us she will stand up for the international rules based order and for a stable, democratic and secure Europe, but in reality she is jumping into bed with Viktor Orban’s destructive vision of illiberal democracy. Voting with Orban is the true Tory Brexit: the exit from European values. A sad day.”

She added: “Today the European parliament has sent a strong message to Viktor Orban and those who wish to spread his illiberal vision; the European Union will defend its values.”

Article 7 allows the EU to “suspend certain of the rights” of member states including the ability to vote at European Council.

Hungary’s new anti-NGO law will allow the government to criminalise groups that help refugees or migrants in the country and has been widely criticised by human rights groups as an infringement on freedom of assembly. The government says it is necessary on security grounds and that refugees are potential terrorists.

Mr Orban’s Fidesz party has also been widely criticised for waging a hate campaign against George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire who funds liberal causes across the world. Ms May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy was also criticised earlier this year after he contributed to a front page article for the Daily Telegraph that repeated apparent antisemitic tropes. The article dealt with Mr Soros's funding of an anti-Brexit campaign called Best for Britain and characterised it as a “plot” to stop Brexit.

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