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Viktor Orban standing in front of a backdrop printed with EU flags

Could the European Union kick out Hungary?

Relations between Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and other European leaders seem to have reached a nadir. For years, Orban has pursued a right-wing agenda that has often contradicted the bloc’s core values.

His latest move has been to introduce what he has framed a “child protection law”, which makes it illegal to share information with under-18s that might be seen as promoting homosexuality. The law includes all products, advertising and media content depicting homosexual or transgender people and LGBTQ-themed educational programs if they even mention the existence of gay and transgender people. The law is the last in a range of efforts to curtail LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms in the country.

This is in some ways similar to Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, a law that stopped UK councils and schools “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. While the law saw opposition as soon as it was introduced, Section 28 wasn’t fully abolished until 2003. The Conservative party ultimately apologised for its introduction.

The European Parliament sees the law as part of the gradual dismantling of fundamental rights in Hungary – state-sponsored LGBTQ-phobia that violates human rights as part of a broader political agenda to break down democracy and the rule of law. The European Commission has also stressed that “equality and the respect for dignity and human rights are core values of the EU, enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty of the EU” and has launched infringement procedures against Hungary.

Member states have also called for more decisive action. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has said the law signals that “Hungary has no place in the EU anymore”, and Luxembourg’s foreign minister has called for a referendum to be held on whether Hungary should be allowed to remain an EU member.

But could the EU throw Hungary out if it wanted to? Terminating membership of international organisations is not particularly common. If we look at the UN, the largest and most ambitious effort to bring states under one international organisation, we see that though not always easy to join, it is definitely much more difficult for a member to be expelled.

Past precedent

In 1971, the UN General Assembly decided to replace officials from Taiwan with those from mainland China. This was because Mao’s China in the mainland rather than Taiwan was now recognised as a state. This move meant that Taiwan was effectively removed from the organisation. Another rare example came when the General Assembly decided that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) – which was, by then, constituted of only Serbia and Montenegro and not the rest of the former Yugoslav republics that had separated from Yugoslavia – could not automatically inherit the membership of Yugoslavia and needed to apply for membership. Effectively, the UN expelled Yugoslavia and eight years later admitted the FRY as a new member state.

A key difference between the cases of Taiwan, FRY and Hungary is that membership of the UN relies mostly on the member being a peace-loving state, while the EU has slightly more sophisticated criteria. This is also why there are many states that are not members of the EU but there aren’t many recognised states which are not members of the UN.

The UN membership of Taiwan and FRY was effectively terminated because they were no longer considered to be states. Hungary is a different case. No one challenges whether Hungary exists as a state. What is challenged is Hungary’s adherence to the obligations of EU membership under Orban’s leadership.

A more common response to situations of this kind has be suspension rather than expulsion.

During apartheid, many international organisations suspended South Africa from membership. Similarly, the Organization of American States suspended Cuba between 1962 and 2009, and Honduras between 2009 and 2011, because their governments were violating the Inter-American Democratic Charter’s commitment to democratic institutions.

Greece was also suspended from the Council of Europe during its dictatorship of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Syria has been suspended from the Arab League since 2011 and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation since 2012.

Haven’t we been here before?

The EU’s Article 7 treaty rules enable it to suspend the voting rights of members “if a country seriously and persistently breaches the principles on which the EU is founded”. Its effects won’t be too different to what other international organisations have done in the past.

Protestors standing over a giant rainbow flag in front of large building.
Protestors in Budapest speak out against the law. EPA

However, the mechanism has never been used and would not be easily enacted. Previous attempts were made to use article 7 to suspend Hungary’s voting rights in response to its treatment of refugees and migrants but they failed.

However, this mechanism might now be the only appropriate response to Hungary’s actions.

At the moment, there is no clear way for the EU to expel a member. International organisations do not often expel their members. Instead, temporary measures like suspending Hungary’s voting rights in the EU or other privileges might be better.

If liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law is an obligation of membership, shouldn’t their disregard carry consequences?

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