Throughout history, pandemics have regularly resulted in an expansion of state powers; this is exactly what is happening now in one of the 27 member states of the European Union. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán is taking advantage of the epidemic to strengthen his authoritarian control over the nation.
While it is true that governments around the world have assumed emergency powers and extraordinary measures to fight coronavirus – including the lockdown of all aspect of everyday life and the closure of borders – so far, few democratic states in Europe have given their government such powers, moreover without an expiry date.
At this point, with an EU member state that has “quarantined” democracy, the real unknown is to understand what else is needed for a strong and unanimous reaction from the European Union.
Last week the Hungarian Prime Minister used the Covid-19 pandemic to pass a law that grants him full powers during the entire duration of the emergency period, without specifying any time limit. In fact, only the premier himself will be responsible for deciding when the state of emergency will end.
Hungary’s parliament approved the law by a two-thirds majority, with 137 members of parliament in favour and 53 against. All the parliamentarians in favor belong to Fidesz, the majority party led by Orbán, along with some far-right deputies, while the entire opposition voted against the bill.
For an indefinite period, Orbán will be able to rule by decree by changing or abolishing any law and introducing derogations from regulatory provisions. According to the bill, Orbán has the power to close the Parliament and to postpone or cancel any elections or referendum. Furthermore, the violation of the quarantine is considered an offense punishable by up to five years of detention, and the same applies for anyone who contribute to the dissemination of false information that may cause alarm or agitation in the public. The last measure is causing fear among independent journalists, already censored and controlled by the government and intimidated in recent days every time they have tried to verify figures on the pandemic in the country or to investigate the catastrophic state of public health in Hungary.
The bill has raised many doubts, especially after the draft of a law proposed by the ruling Fidezs party that seeks to ban legal gender recognition for transgender people in Hungary, clearly not a strictly necessary measures when you are addressing a public health emergency.
The chances that the situation will return to normal after the end of the pandemic are therefore not certain, considering that the “state of crisis due to mass immigration” has still been in force in Hungary since 2015, renewed for the eighth-time last March.
Hungary and the European Union
The relationship between Orbán, the rule of law and the European Union is a delicate matter that has been going on for a long time. In fact, Orbán’s latest move is only the culmination of an authoritarian path that has lasted for years and which has unfolded under the gaze of European public opinion.
The accumulation of illiberal reforms in the last ten year has ended up transforming the Hungarian political model into a semi-democratic hybrid that scholars call “electoral autocracy” or “competitive authoritarianism”, that is, a system in which competition survives but is heavily distorted in favor of the party in power. Moreover, according to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Hungary has lost 14 places compared to the report of 2018, sliding to the 87th position.
Since 2018 Hungary is subject to the EU’s Article 7 procedure, which is activated when there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the values on which the Union is founded.
The European Parliament launched this procedure after the presentation of the Sargentini Report, which expressed serious concerns about the constitutional and electoral system in Hungary, the independence of the judiciary and of other institutions, the spread of corruption, the respect of the freedom of expression and association and the respect of the fundamental rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in the country. This procedure may result in the suspension of European funds, which are vital for the economic growth of the country. But in any case, Orbán knows that he can count on the support of Poland to prevent the unanimity necessary to trigger sanctions against his country.
After the recent moves of the Hungarian premier, thirteen EU member states – Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden – issued a joint statement stating that they are deeply concerned about the risk of violation of the principles of the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights deriving from the adoption of certain emergency measures. While not explicitly mentioning Hungary, the message is quite clear.
Likewise, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, recalled the fact that emergency rules are not at the expense of the fundamental principles, and the EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said that “the EU Commission evaluates the emergency measures taken by Member States with regard to fundamental rights”.
Although all EU member states are determined to fight coronavirus, this cannot be an excuse to undermine the rule of law. The worrying thing is that among of the 27 EU members there has not been a real unanimous condemnation, with only 13 states that have had protested. Unfortunately, the European Commission alone, without a clear position being taken by the European Council, cannot reach to the approval and the adoption of binding measures.