Since Orban’s Fidesz party came to power in 2010, Hungary's government has passed a number of reforms to key institutions, generally in the name of protecting national sovereignty.
Critics say these reforms have breached the EU’s founding values, harming the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, academic and religious freedom and the rights of minorities and refugees.
“If you look at all the aspects that make up an inclusive democracy with equal treatment for the law, where rule of law is the basis for which you run a country, it’s all becoming less,” says Judith Sargentini, an MEP from the GreenLeft party of the Netherlands.
Sargentini proposed a resolution that states democratic values face a “systemic threat” in Hungary and calls on the EU to place the country under review.
Difficult choice for centre-right bloc
MEPs will decide on Thursday whether to proceed with measures under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which technically open the door to the loss of EU voting rights.
Poland is already under a similar review following reforms to its judiciary.
It has pledged to veto any real sanctions against Hungary, which has made the same undertaking in relation to action against Poland.
But the vote will send a signal about the state of European politics ahead of elections to the Euopean parliament next May.
Fidesz is a member of the largest parliamentary group, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), many of whose MEPs would have to vote against Hungary for the resolution to have the two-thirds majority it needs to pass.
Many have been wary of the way far-right populists around Europe have been applauding Orban’s actions.
“You can’t align with the far right in Italy or in Germany, on the basis that they are the lesser evil,” says MEP Ingeborg Grassle of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union in Germany. “People who align with the far right aren’t the lesser evil anymore.”
But others fear that alienating Orban will play into the hands of anti-European forces.
“If we can renew dialogue with Mr Orban and make an effort to share the burden linked to immigration, we can bring him back into the fray,” says Philippe Juvin of France’s centre-right Republicans.
“The fact is that we’ve been pushing Orban out of the system for many years and, if it goes on much longer, we’ll pay for it dearly.”
Sargentini suggests the vote is a kind of ultimatum for centre-right MEPs.
“I spoke with a lot of them over the last months and they all understand what is at stake in Hungary, but some of them feel that they should keep the family together and vote more according to power politics and party politics,” she says.
“When elections come in May, it’s important that every MEP, not just the EPP, can look voters in the eye and say they voted for democracy, for rule of law, for respect for the rights of an individual.”
France among key countries
The resolution depends on the decisions of MEPs from the largest countries, where the EPP has the most members, and where centre-right parties face the growing influence of populist forces.
“The whole EPP is calculating further losses to the group in France, Germany, Spain and Italy, based on the current trends,” says Edit Zgut, foreign policy analyst at the Political Capital Institute in Budapest.
Orban himself slammed Sargentini’s proposal as he addressed MEPs.
“Whatever your decision will be, Hungary will not accede to this blackmail,” he told MEPs. “Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and defend its rights.”
But for all his words of defiance, Orban could also be at risk of losing a key pillar of support in his drive for relevance at the international level.
“By taking over the topics of the far right, he was trying to showcase himself as a successful model for reform of conservative politics and he’s trying to set an example for the struggling European right parties,” Zgut says.
“He’s made it crystal clear that he wants to stay in the EPP, so it would be a huge loss of prestige for him if the EPP does not provide him with a protective umbrella anymore.”