A Test for the European Union — The Opinion Pages

In a speech on Saturday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary said his country was done with liberal democracy. Mr. Orban cited Russia, Turkey and China as “successful” examples of the kind of “illiberal new state based on national foundations” that he wants Hungary to be.

He boasted that European Union membership was no bar to building such a state. Long an admirer of Vladimir Putin, Mr. Orban has been thumbing his nose at the European Union since his Fidesz Party won election in 2010.

Since then, Mr. Orban’s government has taken steps to undermine the rule of law, gut press freedom, attack civil society groups and increase executive power. When Hungary’s Constitutional Court in 2012 struck down some of the laws that Mr. Orban’s government introduced, the government simply brought them back as constitutional amendments.

A new law imposing up to 40 percent tax on advertising revenue is aimed squarely at crippling the Hungarian unit of the RTL Group, one of the few channels in Hungary that does not parrot the government line.

In June, Hungary’s Government Control Office put more pressure on civil society groups, seeking financing data from them. The government has also criminalized homelessness and stripped some 300 religious groups of their official status.

President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (Photo: EPA)

The European Union has condemned these actions, and the Venice Commission, an advisory body on rights to the Council of Europe, published a scathing report on Hungary’s constitutional amendments last year.

On Monday, Neelie Kroes, the vice president of the European Commission who is responsible for the digital agenda, harshly criticized the advertising tax, calling it a threat to a free press that is the foundation of a democratic society. Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, has said that the European Union should consider suspending Hungary’s voting rights in the European Council, a measure the union has been reluctant to take.

Mr. Orban clearly believes he runs no risk. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, needs to respond with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing. The commission could start by reducing the 21.91 billion euros (about $29.33 billion) the European Union has allocated to Hungary to finance infrastructure development from 2014-20.

It should also begin proceedings to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows the suspension of voting rights of a member state that is at serious risk of breaching the values listed in Article 2, including the rule of law, freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.

The commission would diminish its credibility if it fails to take steps to sanction Hungary for systematically breaching these values.

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