The European Parliament on Wednesday launched an action that could unleash unprecedented political sanctions against Viktor Orban's populist Hungarian government for posing a "systemic threat" to the EU's founding values.
The move dealt a stunning political blow to Prime Minister Orban, who had told the parliament a day earlier that a scathing report leading to the vote was an insult to Hungary's honour and people.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto wasted little time in slamming the vote as "nothing less than the petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians".
With elections for a new parliament in May 2019, the vote reflects growing pushback among traditional parties in Europe against the rise of populists, who oppose migration and are accused of undermining the rule of law.
Adopted by 448 votes for to 197 against and with 48 abstentions, the motion marked the first time the parliament has initiated steps under Article Seven of the European Union's treaty. An earlier action against Poland was initiated by the EU executive.
Dutch Greens MEP Judith Sargentini, who spearheaded the vote, smiled broadly and breathed a sigh of relief before embracing parliament supporters in the French city of Strasbourg.
"It is a positive sign of this parliament taking responsibility and wanting action," Sargentini told a press conference afterwards.
She had urged colleagues not to let Hungary off the hook, declaring that Orban's eight-year rule "violates the values on which this union was built."
The parliament issued a statement calling on EU countries to now "act against a member state to prevent a systemic threat" to such founding values as respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
The vote was based on a report that voiced concerns about judicial independence, corruption, freedom of expression, academic freedom, religious freedom, and the rights of minorities and refugees.
The vote takes the first steps under Article Seven of the EU Treaty, known by some in Brussels as the "nuclear option", which could ultimately strip Hungary of its EU voting rights.
Other EU governments could halt any further action, however, and Poland has warned it would do so.
A spokeswoman for Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) government told AFP Warsaw was "very worried by the decision," because it "threatens" EU unity.
- 'Historic vote' -
In a brief speech to parliament on Tuesday, Orban vowed that Hungary would resist any attempt to "blackmail" it into softening its anti-migrant stance, which he charged was the motive behind the vote.
Though defiant, he was resigned to the outcome, saying the parliament seemed to have already made up its mind.
"Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and defend its rights," said Orban, who embraces a vision of a Christian Europe and opposes an influx of Muslim and other migrants.
Opposition to Orban's vision does not just come from the left, with disquiet also in the main centre-right parliamentary group, the European People's Party (EPP).
The EPP's leader, Manfred Weber, said he would vote in favour of the motion against Orban's government, whose Fidesz party belongs to his grouping.
Weber, a candidate to succeed fellow EPP member Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the commission next year, saw his bloc vote 115 for, 57 against with 28 abstentions.
But Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs claimed in a tweet that the motion had failed because the overall vote did not receive the support of two-thirds present.
It was not immediately clear if Budapest will launch a legal challenge.
Juncker, who is not a parliament member, told Belgian daily Le Soir he would have voted for the motion.
"I am in complete agreement with the result," Juncker said.
The Commission has repeatedly clashed with Orban's government, especially since Budapest refused to admit asylum seekers under an EU scheme launched at the height of the migration crisis in 2015.
Wednesday's vote was hailed as "historic" by Berber Biala-Hettinga, Amnesty International’s expert on human rights in the EU.
"The European Parliament rightly stood up for the Hungarian people and for the EU. They made it clear that human rights, the rule of law and democratic values are not up for negotiation," she said.