Commission President issues warning over Hungary's Coronavirus Act

Portfolio
Although European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen does not single out or even mention Hungary, a statement she released on Tuesday is clearly aimed at Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's 'carte blanche' won in Parliament yesterday, by which his government can rule by decree, essentially without checks and balances for as long as the ruling coalition wants.
Ursula von der Leyen velemeny cikk digitalis atallas europai bizottsag 200219

'Authorisation Act' enacted

Hungarian MPs on Monday voted by a two-thirds majority (held by the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coaltion) to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government to rule by decree without a cut-off date. It is now up to a legislative majority (see above) to revoke the state of emergency declared on 11 March due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Although opposition parties had objected to various points of the bill, they were willing to endorse it provided a sunset clause was included. Orbán rejected all of the proposed cut-off dates, even a 90-day sunset clause.

With the new legislation in place (it was signed into law by President János Áder within two hours after it was adopted and it came into effect yesterday night), no elections or by-elections can be held. Also, the cabinet is be able to suspend the enforcement of certain laws. Plus, individuals who publicize what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in prison.

Objections on all fronts

Both civil rights groups in Hungary and international institutions expressed deep concerns about the bill, including officials from the Council of Europe, United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The legislation also drew criticism from members of the European Parliament.

Emergency legislation being adopted by governments across the OSCE region must include a time limit and guarantee parliamentary oversight, said Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) ahead of yesterday's vote. 

[...] a state of emergency – wherever it is declared and for whatever reason – must be proportionate to its aim, and only remain in place for as long as absolutely necessary

, she said.

The OSCE pointed out that under international law, emergency legislation and measures should be necessary and proportionate. They must remain subject to meaningful legislative and judicial oversight and be reviewed regularly to ensure they are still necessary, proportionate and suitable to address the threat that led to their introduction.

United Nations experts warned: “While we recognize the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind States that

any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.

The Council of Europe wrote a letter to Orbán last week, warning that an "indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed."

Orbán responded by telling the Council to "read the exact text of the law", adding that "if you are not able to help us in the current crisis, please at least refrain from hindering our defensive efforts."

Hungary needs masks, not muzzles!

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee said before the draft was put up for vote that "a carte blanche mandate for the Hungarian government with no sunset clause is not the panacea to the emergency caused by the  COVID-19 virus in Hungary."

We need strong rule of law safeguards and proportional and necessary emergency measures, not unlimited government rule by decree that can last beyond the actual epidemic crisis.

On Tuesday, it warned that "we live in a new era: in the time of both an epidemiological and a constitutional state of emergency."

"Calls to enact clearly necessary constitutional guarantees (a sunset clause, well-defined mandate, easy access to and a short time-limit for in-merit decisions of the Constitutional Court) were ignored, although these would have made the government’s proposal acceptable for the political opposition and international stakeholders. This is a missed opportunity when in the current COVID-19 crisis the Hungarian government stresses the importance of national unity."

It is also difficult to understand why the government did not make any reasonable compromises if, as it claims, it has no intentions to exploit the unlimited mandate given by the law.

European politicians raise their voice

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Orbán's move was the final straw. He tweeted:

Germany's Europe Minister Michael Roth, a member of the Social Democrats, tweeted. "We need to overcome this together, not rule through decrees."

"Fighting #COVID19 shouldn't mean shutting down democracy." Renew Europe President Dacian Cioloş tweeted. 

The Socialists and Democrats group wrote on Twitter that "with #COVID19 as a cover, PM Orbán is dismantling democracy in front of our eyes. Is indefinitely ruling by decree or limiting media freedom a measured response? Not in our book." The group also called on the European Commission to respond to the vote. German MEP Katarina Barley posed for a photo with the message "#NoQuarantineForDemocracy" written on a sheet of paper.

The critique was shared by the Greens, who wrote that "this is a dangerous turn away from democratic standards & gives Orbán a carte blanche. We call on Commission & EU countries to pay attention & ensure EU values are upheld during #CoronaCrisis!"

The European Commission, meanwhile, said that it is looking into the legislation, Politico reported.

Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders tweeted the EU "evaluates the emergency measures taken by Member States with regard to fundamental rights."

Commission President points to key values

Ursula von der Leyen did not mention Hungary specifially in her statement published today, but it is safe to say that it was aimed primarily at Hungary, given the adoption of the controversial legislation.

"The European Union is founded on the values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These values are common to all of us. We must uphold and defend them, even in these challenging times.

"Over the past weeks, several EU governments took emergency measures to address the health crisis caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus. We are living in extraordinary times, and governments, in principle, need to have the necessary tools to act rapidly and effectively to protect the public health of our citizens.

"It is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the Treaties.

Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect for freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times.

Now, it is more important than ever that journalists are able to do their job freely and precisely, so as to counter disinformation and to ensure that our citizens have access to crucial information.

Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely. Moreover, governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny.

"The European Commission will closely monitor, in a spirit of cooperation, the application of emergency measures in all Member States. We all need to work together to master this crisis. On this path, we will uphold our European values and human rights. This is who we are, and this is what we stand for."

More in EU funds