The European Commission will not push forward Article 7, the so-called nuclear option, against Hungary over breaches of fundamental rights until there is a strong majority in favour among member states.
“It’s not possible for the Commission to take a decision in the process,” Didier Reynders, the European Commissioner for Justice, said on Monday afternoon.
Hungary has been under the first phase of Article 7 since 2018 over the democratic backsliding overseen by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is accused of weakening judicial independence, perpetuating cronyism, diluting media pluralism, abusing emergency powers, passing anti-LGBT legislation and hindering asylum rights.
Although unrelated to the rule of law, Orbán’s decision last month to single-handedly veto a proposed €50-billion fund to provide Ukraine with long-term financial assistance has drastically increased the exasperation in Brussels, leading to calls for forceful action. The decision will be re-discussed later on Thursday in a high-stakes extraordinary summit.
In a scathing resolution voted earlier this month, the European Parliament demanded Article 7 shift to second gear and conclude the “existence of a serious and persistent breach” of fundamental rights inside Hungary. But this new step, which has never been activated, requires a written proposal by the European Commission or one-third of member states.
Once the proposal is tabled, EU leaders can hold a unanimous vote – minus the accused country – to declare the serious legal breach.
“There is no decision in the Commission at this moment in time to trigger the next step under Article 7,” Reynders said after a meeting of European affairs ministers in Brussels.
“The reason for that is quite simple,” he added, pointing the finger directly at the lack of consensus within the Council.
Although some diplomats have suggested the mood to ratchet up Article 7 has become more favorable in light of Orbán’s veto and his “transactional” demands, Reynders made it clear the required unanimity was still a remote scenario.
“There is nothing worse than submitting a proposal only to see this proposal rejected,” Reynders told reporters.
“If there is a clear signal in the Council about the possible majority or qualified majority, or at the end, maybe not so far, a unanimity to take a decision, of course, the Commission will follow the position of member states.”
Slovakia’s Robert Fico, who previously expressed reservations about the €50-billion fund for Ukraine, and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, who has tried to position herself as a mediator between Budapest and Brussels, are among the leaders who might be hesitant to move Article 7 forward.
Once the “serious and persistent breach” is determined, Article 7 can lead to a third phase: the suspension of membership rights, including voting rights. Depriving Orbán of his veto power would resolve the impasse over Ukraine aid and immediately provide Kyiv with the necessary liquidity to plug its ballooning budget deficit.
But turning Hungary into a powerless, second-class member state would be a radical move with unpredictable consequences. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior EU diplomat said last week that ramping up Article 7 would be “inappropriate” while the bloc is knee-deep trying to find a solution among the 27 countries.
Others, however, have become more vocal in their irritation.
“We really hope the way forward will happen through a 27-countries solution but, of course, all options should be on the table,” said Anders Adlercreutz, Finland’s minister for European affairs, before heading into Monday’s meeting.
“We need to explain to the Hungarian people: Do they want to be the ones who will say to Ukrainians ‘Sorry, we leave you alone and just try to help yourselves’? We shouldn’t forget our own history and that we were happy to have the support of others,” said Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel, referring to the liberation of Europe during WWII.
From Budapest, Orbán and his deputies have vowed to stand their ground, although the fact they have made requests in exchange for lifting the veto suggests there is space, albeit limited, to reach a compromise of sorts during the extraordinary summit.
Meanwhile, in a sharp reflection of the growing exasperation in Brussels, the Financial Times reported the existence of a “confidential” plan to “sabotage” Hungary’s economy if Orbán refuses to lift his veto. The alleged scheme would freeze all EU funding to Budapest, unleash a run on the national currency and spook foreign investors.
A senior EU official acknowledged the existence of a “factual paper” about the state of Hungary’s economy drafted by the Council’s secretariat which “makes a suggestion that is not in line with the course of actions of negotiations.”
Hungary’s Minister for European Affairs János Bóka struck back, saying “the document, drafted by Brussels bureaucrats, only confirms what the Hungarian government has been saying for a long time: access to EU funds is used for political blackmailing.”