In a scathing resolution, Members of the European Parliament threatened to launch legal action against the European Commission if the executive releases further frozen funds to Hungary.
The text, approved on Thursday afternoon with 345 votes in favour, 104 against and 29 abstentions, comes a month after the Commission unblocked €10.2 billion in cohesion funds for Hungary, allowing the country to request reimbursements of that sum.
The funds were unfrozen after Budapest made judicial reforms in May to strengthen judicial independence and mitigate political interference in the courts, responding to the conditions – known as “super milestones” – that Brussels had imposed.
The Commission is still withholding €11.5 billion from Hungary’s allocated share of cohesion funds and most of its €10.4-billion recovery and resilience plan, a situation that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has denounced as “financial blackmail.”
Still, the move to partially release the frozen funds infuriated the Parliament, as made clear in lawmakers’ scorching resolution, which raises the possibility of suing Ursula von der Leyen’s executive if further cash is unblocked.
Such a lawsuit would be brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg, which can adjudicate inter-institutional fights.
The Parliament will “use any of the legal and political measures at its disposal if the Commission releases funding without the criteria being fulfilled or if it fails to ensure the full implementation of the relevant legislation, considering its responsibility to act as the guardian of the Treaties and to protect the EU’s financial interests,” the text reads.
“The Commission is politically accountable to Parliament,” it adds.
Additionally, lawmakers instructed their legal service to review the validity of the €10.2 billion decision, arguing the judicial reform approved by Budapest fails to “meet the standard of judicial independence” enshrined in the EU treaties as that the measures do not “ensure sufficient safeguards against political influence and can be either circumvented or inadequately applied.”
The reform, which the Commission considered satisfactory enough, has also been criticised by civil society. In a joint analysis, Amnesty International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said that the solutions “are makeshift and breach relevant laws and bylaws, as well as rule of law principles.”
The €10.2 billion was released a day before EU leaders gathered to discuss a €50-billion special fund to support Ukraine’s economy until 2027, opposed by Viktor Orbán. The coincidence of events fuelled speculation the Commission was making concessions to appease Orbán, even if the premier eventually vetoed the fund.
Leaders are set to reconvene on 1 February to give the matter a second try. Ahead of the make-or-break occasion, Hungarian officials have become increasingly vocal about their demands to unfreeze the remaining €20 billion. The cash comes from different envelopes and is conditional on reforms to address conflicts of interest, improve public tenders, protect LGBTQ+ rights, strengthen academic freedom and guarantee asylum protection.
In the resolution, the Parliament blasted Orbán’s veto, calling it a “violation of the principle of sincere cooperation,” and said that “in no way can the EU give in to blackmail and trade the strategic interests of the EU and its allies by renouncing its values.”
MEPs insisted that the cohesion and recovery funds that remain frozen “must be treated as a single, integral package, and that no payments should be made even if progress is made in one or more areas but deficiencies still persist in another.”
Thursday’s text was preceded by a debate on Wednesday where lawmakers sharply censured Ursula von der Leyen, whom they see as the political figure responsible for releasing the €10.2 billion. The Commission chief defended the decision but stressed the rest of the cash would stay frozen “until Hungary fulfils all the necessary conditions.”
“These are the rules, we have all agreed to them, and we will follow them. This is what makes the rule of law stand out from arbitrary power,” von der Leyen told MEPs.
Von der Leyen’s plea was not enough to dilute the content of the resolution, which portrays her Commission as overly lenient and careless regarding Orbán’s “deliberate, continuous and systematic efforts” to undermine the bloc’s fundamental values.
MEPs also saved some ammunition to lambast member states, deploring the Council’s inability to curtail the “abuse” of veto power and the failure to advance the Article 7 procedure, known as the nuclear option.
Hungary has been under the first chapter of Article 7 since 2018. This stage identifies a “clear risk of a serious breach” of the EU’s core principles and forces the accused country to explain the situation in regular hearings. Now, lawmakers urge leaders to trigger the second step, which can determine the “existence of a serious and persistent” violation.
But this phase requires a proposal submitted by one-third of member states or by the Commission, neither of whom have signalled an intention to do so.
The Parliament “underlines that the Council shares the responsibility for the protection of the values enshrined in Article 2 TEU and that the failure to do so would have long-lasting and potentially damaging consequences.”
The resolution, however, does not go as far as calling for the third step of Article 7, which can suspend the voting rights of the accused country. This request was made last week by a cross-party coalition of 120 MEPs but did not make it to the final text approved on Thursday. No member state has ever been deprived of voting rights in the bloc’s history.
In reaction to the debate that preceded the vote, Orbán took to social media to scold his critics in the hemicycle and dig his heels in the veto.
“Liberal MEPs attacked Hungary once again,” the premier wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
“They want to give money to Ukraine for 4 years, while the European elections are just 5 months away. They essentially want to strip people of their rights to make decisions on their future. What an anti-democratic position!”