Conservative MEPs have given their support to the authoritarian government of Viktor Orban in a crunch vote in the European Parliament.
Almost all of the politicians representing Theresa May’s party voted against a motion to censure the Hungarian leader, which in the end was overwhelmingly passed.
Their support for the right-wing leader – accused of violating press freedoms, undermining judicial independence and waging an antisemitic campaign against a leading Jewish businessman – was attacked by Ms May’s critics in the UK.
But her spokespeople attempted to distance the prime minister from the move by claiming on Wednesday afternoon that she had not been consulted in advance how her MEPs would vote.
Politicians from across the EU voted by a two-thirds majority 448-197 in favour of starting the ‘Article 7’ process – which could ultimately see Hungary stripped of its voting rights at the European Council.
As well as undermining civil rights, the judiciary and attacking Jewish businessman George Soros, Mr Orban’s government is subject to allegations of corruption relating to the alleged misspending of EU funds by his friends and family.
Mr Orban himself has described refugees as “Muslim invaders” and been accused of being deeply Islamophobic.
Ahead of the vote, Tories claimed the process had been “politicised” and was counterproductive – putting them at odds with the continent’s mainstream.
Conservative sources in Strasbourg denied the vote had anything to do with Brexit – after they were accused by some opponents of allying with the populist government in a frantic search for allies.
However, Mr Orban had arrived at the meeting of the European Parliament saying: “We would like to have a fair Brexit because we love the British and because we cooperated always well – and you deserve a good deal, a fair deal.”
MEPs at the European Parliament’s seat in Strasbourg cheered and applauded in celebration after it was announced that the motion had passed.
On Tuesday Mr Orban himself travelled to Strasbourg in a last-ditch attempt to make his case.
He accused liberals, socialists, and “forces supporting immigrants and migrants against Hungary and the Hungarian people” of being jealous of his party’s success and framed the motion as an attack on the Hungarian people, rather than his government.
Speaking before the Wednesday vote, Conservative home affairs spokesman Dan Dalton said: “This report crosses a boundary by politicising what should be a purely legal matter.
“If the EU’s treaties have been breached by any member state, it is for the European Commission to build a legal case against it.
“MEPs have no role to play in the process and their involvement leaves any subsequent legal action open to the accusation that it is politically motivated. This report is misguided, counterproductive and sets a dangerous precedent. I hope parliament votes against.”
Tory sources in Strasbourg said the vote was not a comment on the situation in Hungary.
In London, Ms May’s officials were apparently unaware of the way the vote had gone when asked about it by The Independent, saying: “We weren’t consulted in advance.”
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party reacted with anger however, at the governing party’s support for a leader who has become something of a poster-boy for far-right European populism.
The Labour leader’s spokesman said: “Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary has clearly attacked judicial and media independence and denied refugee rights and pandered to antisemitism and islamophobia and it was absolutely right that motion of censure and investigation under the disciplinary process of the European Union was launched, and was voted on just now by the European Parliament.
“It’s absolutely shocking that the Conservative MEPs voted against that motion.”
The Conservatives’ isolation in Strasbourg was underlined after Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian conservative who is himself in a coalition with the far-right, ordered his MEPs to vote in favour of the sanctions. Manfred Weber, the Bavarian who leads the main conservative group in the Parliament, also said he would back the motion, as did most centre-right delegations from other countries.
Supportive MEPs from across the parliament’s political groups cheered and gave a standing ovation when the motion passed during the Wednesday session. The vote followed Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s annual state of the union address.
Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, under which the vote was brought, says a member state can be sanctioned if there is ”a clear risk of a serious breach” of the European values all EU members signed up to when they joined. The values, which are spelled out in Article 2 of the same treaty are “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.
The treaty also enforced ”a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail”. The European Council, made up of member state governments, will have to agree with the Parliament before any significant action is taken against Hungary.
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