On Wednesday, the European Parliament launched an action that could unleash unprecedented political sanctions against the populist Hungarian government of Viktor Orban for posing a "systemic threat" to the founding values of the EU.
The move was a dazzling political blow for Prime Minister Orban, who had told parliament a day before a scathing report leading to the vote was an insult to the honor and the people of Hungary.
The Hungarian Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto, did not take long to qualify the vote as "nothing less than the petty revenge of politicians in favor of immigration."
With elections for a new parliament in May 2019, the vote reflects a growing backlash between traditional parties in Europe against the rise of populists, who oppose migration and are accused of undermining the rule of law.
Approved by 448 votes in favor and 19 against and 48 abstentions, the motion marked the first time that parliament has initiated steps under Article Seven of the European Union treaty. An earlier action against Poland was initiated by the EU executive.
Dutch Green MEP, Judith Sargentini, who led the vote, smiled broadly and breathed a sigh of relief before embracing the supporters of parliament in the French city of Strasbourg.
"It is a positive signal that this parliament assumes responsibility and wants to act," Sargentini said at a subsequent press conference.
She had urged her colleagues not to let go of Hungary, declaring that Orban's eight-year rule "violates the values on which this union was built."
The parliament issued a statement asking the EU countries to now "act against a member state to avoid a systemic threat" to foundational values such as respect for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
The vote was based on a report that raised 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 to some in Brussels as the "nuclear option," which could ultimately strip Hungary of its voting rights in the EU.
However, other EU governments could stop any further action, and Poland has warned that it would do so.
A spokeswoman for the Polish government of Law and Justice (PiS) told AFP that Warsaw was "very concerned about the decision" because it "threatens" the unity of the EU.
In a brief speech before parliament on Tuesday, Orban vowed that Hungary would resist any attempt to "blackmail" to soften its anti-immigrant stance, which he said was the reason for the vote.
Although defiant, he resigned himself to the result, saying that the parliament seemed to have made a decision.
"Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and defend its rights," said Orban, who adopts a vision of a Christian Europe and opposes the influx of Muslims and other immigrants.
The opposition to Orban's vision does not come only from the left, with concern also in the main center-right parliamentary group, the European People's Party (EPP).
EPP leader Manfred Weber said he would vote in favor of the motion against the Orban government, whose Fidesz party belongs to his group.
Weber, a candidate to succeed the other EPP member Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the commission next year, saw his block vote 115, 57 against and 28 abstentions.
But the spokesman of the Hungarian government, Zoltan Kovacs, said in a tweet that the motion had failed because the general 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 member of parliament, told the Belgian daily Le Soir that he would have voted in favor of the motion.
"I totally agree with the result," Juncker said.
The Commission has repeatedly clashed with the Orban government, especially since Budapest refused to admit asylum seekers under an EU scheme launched at the height of the migration crisis in 2015.
The vote was hailed as "historic" by Amnesty International's human rights expert Berber Biala-Hettinga.
"The European Parliament rightly defended the Hungarian people and the EU, and made it clear that human rights, the rule of law and democratic values are not negotiable," he said.