Conservative MEPs have been thanked by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban for controversially opposing efforts to censure his far-right government.
All but three of the party’s MEPs voted against the triggering of the EU’s sanctions process against Hungary in the European parliament last week, arguing it went beyond the powers of the institution and would be politically counterproductive.
That saw the Conservatives accused of “propping-up” Orban in exchange for Brexit support by political opponents and criticised by leaders of Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities.
But it has also earned them a signed thank you letter from Orban, Yahoo UK can reveal.
“I would like to express my gratitude for your participation and contribution at the plenary debate and during the vote on the report on the situation in Hungary,” the letter begins.
Later Orban adds: “I appreciate the support you’ve shown towards national sovereignty and solidarity during the vote.”
Labour says Orban’s praise is fresh proof prime minister Theresa May should apologise for her party’s position on the issue.
MEPs voted by 448 to 197 in favour of a report triggering the sanctions procedure over the “clear risk of a serious breach of the EU founding values” in Hungary.
The report cited evidence of attacks on media, religious and academic freedom, ill treatment of minorities and asylum seekers, and interference in judicial independence.
It also accuses Orban himself of using “clearly anti-Semitic stereotypes” against Jewish businessman George Soros during a speech as part of his recent re-election campaign.
In his letter, Orban says the report is based on “political insinuations and factual errors.”
And he concludes: “I can assure you that regardless of the shameful attacks of pro-immigration forces, we will not give in to extortion. We will continue to fulfil our European obligations and defend the borders of European and Hungary, for the sake of our citizens.
“I wish you good health and a lot of success in your highly responsible duties.”
The letter was sent on official Hungarian government notepaper two days after the high-profile vote in Strasbourg, which saw UK Conservatives voting the same way as MEPs from UKIP and continental far-right parties like France’s National Front and Italy’s Liga Nord.
The same letter appears to have been sent to all political groups, and in some cases individual MEPs, who opposed the move.
It came to light when a copy sent to the head of the far-right ENF group, Nicolas Bay of France’s National Front, was posted online by another member of the group.
Yahoo UK has now confirmed that Conservative MEPs received the same letter.
Other members of the Conservative-led ECR political group have also received the letter. The copy below was sent to Czech MEP Jan Zahradil.
The letter has sparked fresh criticism of the position taken by the Conservatives just as the issue appeared to be fading from view.
Labour MP and party chairman Ian Lavery told Yahoo UK: “Being thanked for their support by the far-right government of Hungary should be a matter of shame for the Tories.
“Theresa May has still not accounted for why her Party is backing a government that has attacked judicial and media independence, denied refugee rights, and pandered to antisemitism and Islamophobia.
“The prime minister must explain and apologise for her Party’s behaviour.”
Conservative MEP Dan Dalton insisted though that the group’s position had “in no way signalled approval or support for any of the policies of the Hungarian government.”
He argued: “The parliament politicised what should be a legal process for the sake of making a political point. By doing so it presented Orban with an international platform from which to portray himself as defending Hungary against the EU.
“As a result, he has been strengthened domestically. Equally significantly, it has prejudiced any future legal action that the Commission may wish to take by allowing Orban to claim it is politically motivated.”
As a result of the vote, the European Council – of which Theresa May is a member – 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.