Members of the EU parliament have voted to begin a punitive procedure against Hungary for persistently flouting democratic rules.

With 448 votes in favour, 197 against and 48 abstentions, the motion passed in the Strasbourg plenary session, in what is the first time the European legislature has triggered the so-called Article 7 procedure against an EU member state.

Since sweeping to power in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pressured courts, media and non-governmental groups, as well as refusing to take in asylum seekers arriving in Europe.

Though the European Union has often protested, it has largely failed to stop what his critics decry as his growing authoritarianism.

However a surge in support for nationalist and populist politicians across the bloc has galvanised a stronger reaction.

Speaking in front of the assembly yesterday, Mr Orban said he would not bow to the EU's "blackmail", but will stick to his policies.

The parliament's vote means the other EU states must now look at what to do with Hungary.

The most severe punishment under the Article 7 procedure is stripping Hungary of its voting rights in the EU.

That is highly unlikely to happen as the rest of the EU needs unanimity, while Poland's nationalist and anti-immigration government would be expected to block any tough action against Mr Orban.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the EU move was the "petty revenge" of pro-immigration politicians against his country.

He also said Hungary would seek legal ways to challenge the ruling as abstaining votes were not counted, and this, he said, changed the outcome of the vote. 

"The decision was made in a fraudulent way, and contrary to relevant rules in European treaties," he said.