European Union parliament votes to stop Hungary's 'threat' to democracy

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"Hungary and the Hungarian people are being condemned because they proved that migration can be stopped and there is no need for migration", Szajer said.

"You say no more than the Hungarian people cannot decide for themselves what is in their own interest".

The lawmakers voted 448-197 in favour of a report recommending the launch of a so-called Article 7 procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Hungary's European Union voting rights.

Under Article 7, the European Council, or heads of national governments, may declare that there is a risk of a serious breach of European values by a member state. The same procedure was launched by the European Commission against Poland in December 2017.

Poland on Wednesday said it was very anxious by the European Parliament's rare decision to launch a procedure against Hungary for posing a "systemic threat" to the EU's founding values.

The vote was based on a report that voiced concerns about judicial independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious freedom, and the rights of minorities and refugees under eight years of Orban rule.

"I reject that the European Parliament's forces supporting immigration and migrants threaten, blackmail and with untrue accusations defame Hungary and the Hungarian people", he said during a feisty speech.

An immigration hard-liner, Orban has put pressure on courts, media and non-government groups since coming to power in 2010.

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The EPP decided on Tuesday evening that its lawmakers would vote freely without a unified stance from the whole group.

Budapest argues its anti-migrant measures and its defence of sovereign rights are in tune with the mood of European voters, who will elect a new parliament in Strasbourg next May.

Timmermans said the European Commission has launched "audits and other investigations" into the alleged misuse in Hungary of EU funds.

The centre-right European People's Party, in which both Hungary's ruling Fidesz party and Orban's main political opponent in Europe, German chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) are members, has until now been seen as sheltering Orban from criticism.

"It also sends out an important message to all member countries that the European Union is not prepared to compromise on human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights".

French President Emmanuel Macron, an outspoken defender of European Union values, has urged the EPP to clarify its stance, saying it could not back both Merkel and Orban at the same time.

Addressing the parliament ahead of Orban, Greek leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said: "Pro-European forces have a duty to stand side by side". "We are staying and we are fighting". Orban might have lost some key allies as EPP lawmakers said their caucus meeting showed many would vote in favor of Article 7.

"We welcome the European Parliament's decision to defend the rule of law and confront the Hungarian government's attempts to shut down civil society and independent voices in the media and academia", said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.

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