The EU has moved closer to sanctioning Hungary. After a vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, a two thirds majority was achieved to begin the process, which could see Hungary warned, or ultimately losing funding or voting rights.
Similar measures were taken against Poland in December 2017, as the EU attempts to bring discipline to the diverse bloc. What has set in motion this train of events? What are national and common European values? And what does this say about future alliances in the bloc, and its overall collective direction?
The case against Hungary, and its president Viktor Orban has been running for several years. Following the refugee crisis in 2015, Orban has refused EU quotas on asylum seekers. Orban has also taken measures to reform Hungary's judiciary. A move critics believe threatens the independence of the legal system, and one which supporters claim is necessary to remove crony placeholders of the past.
Hungary's recent election saw increased focus on outside intervention in the national political process. Orban sought to limit foreign funding of NGOs, stating they should be declared foreign agents: a decision the Hungarian authorities consider brings the country in line with international norms curtailing foreign influence in domestic politics.
Other claims related to media interference, limits on academic freedom, treatment of Roma peoples, and even images used to depict women in government publications.
These issues have irritated the EU for several years; and Orban has long been represented as something of a disruptive, reactionary force in Central European politics by foreign media.
The vote was championed by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini. Referring to these conflicts, the motion was couched in the highest-sounding liberal terms, charging that Hungary was "a risk of a serious and systematic breach of European values that we all share". And EU President Jean-Claude Juncker stated the process "must be applied whenever the rule of law is threatened".
Before voting Orban was in combative mood in parliament, claiming Hungary "was being punished for not being a country of migrants". He added MEPs were "not going to condemn a government but a country as well as a nation".
Although the motion passed, it was not unanimous, with several abstentions and votes against, including MEPs from the UK (still officially voting members until Brexit in March 2019).
UK MEPs argued the measures represented Brussels over-reach into the sovereign affairs of a member state, consistent with a long-held British position of keeping the EU at arms’ length: a vision of the bloc as a collection of independent nation states, not a United States of Europe.
Critical in the final vote was the position taken by the European People's Party (EPP), a broad coalition of right wing parties. The alliance has in the past protected Hungary, seeking to influence its right wing Fidesz party through engagement rather than threats.
Despite dropping their support, EPP leader Manfred Weber stressed the need to keep Fidesz onboard. He argued the decision of UK right wing parties to leave the group was one of the steps to Brexit, adding "I don't want to see the same happening with the east of Europe".
Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of political consultancy Defending Democracy, criticised this approach. "For years the EPP has claimed it is better to keep Orban's party Fidesz in than out, but this has been a catastrophe".
Orban reacted by dismissing the EPP for "dancing to the tune of the socialists and the liberals", reasserting Hungary's right to "protect our borders and we will decide who to live with". He stressed Hungary had a different perspective to other EU nations regarding Christianity, nations, national culture, family and immigration.
A Hungarian government spokesman reiterated the vote was a "desperate attempt on behalf of the pro-migrant, pro-migration political groups to put Hungary on trial", and that such decisions did "no good for the European project that many on the political left, including the French president, are trying to divide Europe along these lines". Agostan Mraz, Nezopont think tank director, claimed this was a "gift to the campaign" of Orban back home, representing an "an external attack on Hungary and its independence".
To progress further, four fifths of MEPs must agree to issue a formal warning; while a unanimous decision is necessary to suspend voting rights. The latter seems remote, as Poland is under the same EU pressure to end its own legal reforms, and a mutual agreement to veto sanctions could derail any stronger measures.
This does emphasise that two large nations in Eastern Europe are moving in similar directions, and that western parts of the EU are resisting this: a conflict often framed in terms of the founding western states against the newer eastern members.
It was assumed after the fall of the USSR that its former satellites would happily drop into the liberal EU fold, underestimating the strength of nationalist sentiment in the east. This also came at a time when western liberal social values (if not economic ones) were moving towards a softer form of socialism, perhaps closer to those of the USSR than many in the west were prepared to recognise.
Jean-Claude Juncker spoke of this in an interview with Deutsche Welle, warning against "widening this gap between east and west", adding he had largely "given up" reining Hungary in, although it was "part of the same European family of political parties". He wished to persuade President Orban that his present course was "helpful neither to him or Europe".
The migration crisis and nationalism in Eastern Europe is stretching the EU values of inclusion, engagement and diversity to greater tension; with liberal MEPs more willing to assert discipline, and eastern states becoming more strident. It is easy for diplomacy to provide reassuring words; but how long can this divergence continue.