The EP voted yesterday with 448 votes in favour of initiating the so-called Article 7 process against Hungary, citing that the government has been breaching the bloc’s core values. The procedure is sometimes called the EU’s “nuclear option” as it provides for the most serious political sanction the bloc can impose on a member country — the suspension of the right to vote on EU decisions.

This extreme sanction is unlikely to materialise as the Visegrad countries still support Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and the Polish government explicitly said that they would veto any measures against Hungary in the Council. While Poland will have elections next year, as it stands, the governing Law and Justice Party has a good chance of winning again. Poland would therefore continue to support Hungary’s position in Council.

EPP breaks with traditional allies

The result of the vote comes as no surprise – ALDE, GUE/NGL, the Greens and the S&D, counting 360 MEPs in total, had already indicated that they would vote in favour of triggering article 7. However, the vote does signal a significant shift in the dynamics within the EPP group.  Counting abstentions (48), at least half of the EPP supported the EP’s report which concluded that Hungary is no longer a functioning liberal democracy and was in breach of core European values. The Sargentini report was only rejected by around 50 EPP MEPs.

Manfred Weber, who announced this week that he would run for EPP Spitzenkandida-cy, told the press the night before that he would vote in favour of condemning Orban. Weber has been an ally of Orban in the past – and the Hungarian Prime minister supported Weber for the Commission presidency. However Weber’s rupture with Orban’s Fidesz party may make the EPP Chair more centrist in his candidacy, as he loses his link with the more right-wing elements of the Parliament.  Even Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, traditional ally of Orban on issues such as migration, had openly decried Fidesz’s membership of the EPP.

 In response to the report, Orban argued in his speech at the EP that the EPP “has become weak and they dance as the liberals and socialists whistle” (Hungarian expression). Such a strong statement on the EPP from Orban has never happened before.

Election implications – more seats for ECR?

Orban has not expressed any desire to leave the EPP, currently the biggest group in the Parliament and a key ally to the Hungarian government. If he were to be forced out of the group however – which is increasingly probable given Weber’s shift in ally-ship – he would likely join the ECR. This could play into Matteo Salvini’s hands. In the run-up to the European elections the Italian right-wing Lega’s chief is reportedly trying to unite the anti-immigration Eurosceptic parties in a common bloc. He sees the Hungarian Prime Minister as a key ally – as demonstrated by a meeting two weeks ago between Salvini and Orban, where they reinforced their common platform on anti-immigration and less EU integration.

Fidesz currently counts 12 MEPs in the EPP group, and has strong links to two MEPs from the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania and one from the Hungarian Community Party in Slovakia. Both would likely mirror Fidesz’s alliances. This means the Hungarian party’s membership of the EPP currently secures 15 seats for the group. The elections in May are likely to see the number of Fidesz MEPs grow, as the opposition is in a very unfavourable situation – this year’s Hungarian election results would already translate into 14 Fidesz MEPs, but 15 seats would be more likely in light of current trends. The anti-immigration Slovenian Democratic (three MEPs) could also leave with Orban, as Fidesz has financed their campaign in the last elections. In total, the EPP is thus set to lose 21 MEPs with the departure of Fidesz.

As the EP gears up for its most unpredictable elections yet, the vote to initiate Article 7 proceedings has much broader implications  than the potential suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in Council. It signals a shift in the EPP’s alliances, and a huge potential boost for the ECR.