The debate over the Sargentini Report, Part 1: These issues are ancient history

The European Parliament convenes in plenary next week to consider a resolution to impose sanctions on Hungary for alleged violations of the rule of law. The motion would trigger the Article 7 procedure, the so-called “nuclear option,” against a member state. That’s serious stuff.

When the plenary convenes in Strasbourg next Tuesday to debate this resolution, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will also take part. Given the stakes, one would expect that a proposal to take such serious measures would be based on serious analysis, sound legal reasoning and impartiality. Instead, MEP Judith Sargentini’s report raises issues resolved long ago.

Take a look just a few of the many examples:

The report cites concerns about the compulsory retirement of judiciary staff. That’s a matter we resolved way back in 2013. Following a ruling of the European Court of Justice, the European Commission monitored the implementation of the new Hungarian law and closed the infringement procedure by the end of 2013. It also voiced satisfaction regarding the measures undertaken by Hungary that guaranteed reinstatements to leading administrative positions. The case is closed. It’s ancient history. 

The report also references the law on the transparency of organizations receiving financial support from abroad, raising another worn out charge. Sargentini argues that the legislation did not apply universally to all organizations operating in Hungary. In fact, the Council of Europe found quite the opposite: in resolution 2162 (2017) they acknowledged that the Hungarian law did not discriminate against select NGOs and closed the case.

It expresses concerns over the working conditions of pregnant women in Hungary, yet fails to highlight that following the introduction of minor legislative amendments in the Hungarian Parliament, the European Commission closed the case months ago.

Speaking of the Commission, the guardian of the treaties and the one EU institution with the legitimate authority to launch infringement proceedings, it has already evaluated the Hungarian situation in detail and did not deem it necessary to launch the Article 7 (1) procedure. 

I could go on. There are many examples of issues long outdated. But that’s not all. In other points, the report raises matters that simply do not belong to the competence of the European Union.

We were surprised, for example, to find criticism of social and educational policies such as the minimum amount and maximum duration of unemployment benefit, the minimum amount of pensions and the content of our school books. Those are issues that clearly fall under the authority of the national government. They’re not the EU’s business.

Why do we get a report like this and, despite its glaring flaws, a European Parliament plenary debate? The simple answer may be the coming EP elections and the fact that this circus provides a convenient opportunity to grandstand just as the campaign is getting underway. We’ll surely see some of that next Tuesday. 

But as Hungary’s Minister of State for EU relations Judit Varga wrote in POLITICO Europe earlier this week, “[p]olitically motivated attacks and lecturing other EU leaders will divide the EU.” At a time when EU institutions suffer from a lack of credibility, the EU faces a choice, Varga wrote: “[f]urther polarize the bloc and undermine our own institutions, or strive for a Union that truly embraces diversity and allows countries to pursue their own legitimate approaches.”

The attack we find in the Sargentini Report and the lectures we’ll hear next week seem to favor more polarization.