The Conservative party has come under fire after its members of the European Parliament opposed a move to censure the Hungarian government for persistently flouting EU values.
MEPs voted by 448 to 197 to trigger ‘Article 7’ sanctions proceedings against Viktor Orban’s right-wing administration which could lead to the country’s EU voting rights being suspended.
They cited his government’s attacks on media freedom, ill treatment of minorities and meddling with the judicial and electoral systems as evidence that there is a “clear risk of a serious breach of the EU founding values.”
Human Rights Watch called on Conservative MEPs to “stand up for democracy” by supporting the action.
But Conservative MEPs defied their lobbying to side with Orban’s supporters in opposing the motion.
All but three of the Conservative’s 19 MEPs joined Nigel Farage and 14 other UKIP MEPs in voting against the sanctions process.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said the Tories had “shown their true colours” by trying to “protect” Orban.
Baroness Nosheena Mobarik was the only Conservative MEP to vote in favour of action, while Charles Tannock and Sajjad Karim abstained.
There have been claims their position was linked to Brexit negotiations.
Judith Sargentini, the Dutch MEP who authored the report on Hungary’s government, said ahead of the vote: “Theresa May feels supported by Viktor Orban in Brexit talks and that is very interesting.”
And Green MEP Molly Scot Cato said: “In desperation to create new partnerships post-Brexit our government appears willing to prop up all manner of unsavoury regimes, including the Orbán government, which has clearly failed to protect freedom of speech and the rule of law.”
Orban addressed Brexit during a visit to the European Parliament on Tuesday, saying: “We would like a fair Brexit because we love the British. You deserve a good deal, a fair deal.”
But Dan Dalton MEP, Conservative spokesman for home affairs in the European Parliament, insisted the group opposed the motion because MEPs are “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,” he said. “MEPs have no role to play in the process.”
Wednesday’s vote was the first time the European parliament has triggered the sanctions procedure and was even more surprisingly given a two-thirds majority was needed and Orban’s Fidesz party maintains significant political influence.
It is part of the centre-right EPP group, which is the largest in the European parliament. The group has repeatedly been accused of turning a blind eye to the actions of Orban’s government.
But the EPP leadership drew a line in the sand on Wednesday by voting in favour of triggering the sanctions procedure.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who is an EPP party member, signalled his support for the move in his state of the union speech earlier on Wedneday.
“We continue to be very concerned by the developments in some of our member states,” he said. “Article 7 must be applied whenever the rule of law is threatened.”
As a result of the vote, the European Council, which is made up of heads of government like Theresa May, must assess whether they agree there is a risk of Hungary breaching EU values.
If they unanimously decide that is the case, that could lead to sanctions such as Hungary being stripped of its voting rights.
Sargentini said: “Now it is up to the European leaders to take their responsibility and stop watching from the sidelines as the rule of law is destroyed in Hungary.
“This is unacceptable for a union that is built on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.”