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Hungary's leader rejects criticism in EU parliament debate

LORNE COOK and PABLO GORONDI
Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — Hungary's prime minister on Tuesday strongly rejected criticism of his government's policies, as European Union lawmakers debated whether to sanction Budapest for allegedly undermining the bloc's values.

The European Parliament was debating whether Hungary should face action over its policies on migration, the media, corruption and civil society that opponents say are against the EU's democratic values and the rule of law.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as expected, claimed during the debate in Strasbourg, France, that Hungary was being attacked for its tough anti-immigration stance.

"This report does not give respect to the Hungarian nation," Orban told the lawmakers. "You think you know better than the Hungarian people what the Hungarian people need."

Orban said that political sanctions being considered against Hungary would be the first time in the EU that "a community condemns its own border guards."

"I reject that the European Parliament's forces supporting immigration and migrants threaten, blackmail and with untrue accusations defame Hungary and the Hungarian people," he said during a feisty speech.

"Whatever decision you make, Hungary will not give in to extortion, Hungary will defend its borders, will stop illegal migration and will protect its rights, if needed, from you, too."

Lawmakers will vote Wednesday on a proposal to launch the rule-of-law procedure, based on a report by the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, that could lead to Hungary losing its EU voting rights under a process known as Article 7.

The European Commission, the bloc's executive body, launched Article 7 proceedings against Poland over an alleged erosion of judicial independence late last year. But Hungary's case is the first time that the EU parliament is considering calling for the launch of the sanctions process for a member state because of a perceived threat to European values.

Orban said the EU lawmakers had been given a 108-page documents detailing what the Hungarian government viewed as "basic errors" in the report on Hungary drafted by Judith Sargentini, a Dutch politician in the European Green Party.

For years, Orban has successfully deflected much of the international condemnation about Hungary's electoral system, media freedoms, independence of the judiciary, mistreatment of asylum-seekers and refugees and limitations on the functioning of non-governmental organizations, but criticism has been growing even within the European People's Party, to which his Fidesz party belongs.

EPP leader Manfred Weber, nominally an Orban political ally in the assembly, conceded that "the start of a dialogue based on Article 7 could be needed."

Weber said the EPP would decide later Tuesday whether to support the Article 7 action. Should the EPP move against it, Fidesz would be under huge pressure to leave the group.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has been supervising Article 7 discussions with Poland, said he shared the findings in the parliamentary report.

"Democracy in our member states and in our European Union cannot exist without the rule of law," Timmermans said, and went on to list concerns about fundamental rights, corruption in Hungary and the treatment of migrants.

Timmermans said the European Commission has launched "audits and other investigations" into the alleged misuse in Hungary of EU funds.

"The commission will not hesitate to take further action if necessary. My promise to you is that we will be relentless," he told the lawmakers.

Timmermans also attacked Orban for attempting to turn criticism of his government into an attack on Hungary.

"To say that criticizing laws, criticizing the government would amount to criticizing a nation or a people, frankly speaking Mr. Orban, that's the coward's way out," Timmermans said near the end of the debate. "Don't try to deflect the attention from criticism of the actions of your government by saying that those who criticize your government attack your nation or your people."

Socialist leader Udo Bullmann branded Orban "the head of the most corrupt government here inside the European Union," while liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt described the Hungarian leader as "the seed of discord that will ultimately destroy our European project."

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told ORF television on Monday that his Austrian People's Party — like Fidesz, a member of the EPP, the biggest and most powerful party group in the assembly — would vote in favor of opening Article 7 proceedings against Hungary.

"There are no compromises on the rule of law," Kurz said. "Fundamental values have to be protected."

Despite the criticism, Orban said he was "readying to support the EPP" in next year's European Parliament elections.

"We are not going to leave the EPP," Orban said. "We are staying and we are fighting."

Asked about his expectations about the result of Wednesday's vote on the report, Orban said he was sure it would gather the two-thirds support needed for approval and then attempts would be made to expel Fidesz from the EPP. "The decision has been made," Orban said.

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Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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