Sargentini Report and the European Court on rule of law: Rules are made to be broken

Hungary challenged the European Parliament’s adoption of the Sargentini Report back in 2018 on the grounds that the EP had arbitrarily bent the voting rules to tilt the odds in its favor. Last week, in a ruling that defies reason, the European Court of Justice ruled against Hungary’s challenge. The decision has sparked some serious questions and contradictions.

On September 12, 2018, the European Parliament needed a two-thirds majority to pass a report, dubbed the “Sargentini Report” after the rapporteur, former Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini. The EP’s left-liberal majority wanted to pass the report so badly, while simultaneously launching the EU’s “nuclear” Article 7 procedure, that they played a little fast and loose with the EP’s voting rules.

A minimum of 462 votes would have been required to pass the resolution. That’s two-thirds of the 693 MEPs that present at the time of the vote. Sargentini could garner only 448 votes to support her so-called report. That’s 64.64 percent, clearly short of two-thirds. We rang the alarm that the EP was riding roughshod over the EU Treaties. In our view, the EP could only pass the report by going around the well-established voting rules and ignoring the 48 abstentions because by doing so (casting the abstentions aside) the “yes” votes magically amounted to 69.45 percent.

Not long after the vote, Hungary took the case to the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) to challenge the European Parliament’s handling of the otherwise clear voting procedures.

Following almost three, long years of consideration, the ECJ handed down its decision last week, ruling against Hungary’s claim and upholding the EP’s passing of the infamous Sargentini Report. This, however, raises some serious questions and points to blatantly devious contradictions.

As we see it, the vote was not only contrary to the founding EU Treaties, but also to the EP’s own rules of procedure. If abstentions had been considered when determining the proportion of votes in favor, then the two-thirds majority required to adopt the politically driven report would not have been reached.

It doesn’t take a law degree to know that abstentions, in fact, are a means to express tacit disagreement and are therefore results of conscious political decisions. They do not necessarily mean that the MEP was unwilling to vote. Quite the contrary, in fact. In our view, this deceitful way of counting votes also violated the freedom of MEPs to choose what they wish to vote for. With their abstentions ignored, these MEPs might have unwillingly contributed to the passing of a decision they were not in favor of.

Another important aspect, and a troubling contradiction, behind last week's ECJ ruling is the fact that while it has taken almost three years for the court to hand down a ruling on such a simple procedural issue, the EP itself is now calling for the Court’s decision-making process to be accelerated on the overly complex issue of rule of law conditionality. It’s a bit of a paradox, no?

Regardless of the EP’s long-standing witch hunt against Hungary (and to a certain extent, Poland), we must emphasize that this ECJ ruling will not make the biased claims included in the Sargentini Report any truer. The report's accusations have been refuted by the Hungarian government on countless occasions, both professionally and in terms of fundamental values and principles.

The hypocrisy runs rich here. Rule of law, as we all know, is a basic value of the European Union. But if it becomes inconvenient to a certain political agenda, then, well, rules are made to be broken.