Von der Leyen warns against democratic backsliding without mentioning Hungary

File photo. European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen welcomes Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban ahead to a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, 3 February 2020. [Olivier Hoslet/EPA/EFE]

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned on Tuesday (31 March) that coronavirus emergency measures by EU countries must be “limited”, in a veiled reference to Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orbán, who used the pandemic to take on sweeping powers.

“Democracy cannot work without free and independent media,” von der Leyen said in a statement. Even though she did not explicitly name Hungary, her statement can nevertheless be seen as a rebuke to Orbán’s adoption of ‘rule by decree’.

“Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely,” von der Leyen said.

Hungary’s parliament endorsed a bill on Monday giving Orban the sweeping new powers he says he needs to fight the new coronavirus pandemic.

Critics at home and abroad have condemned the “anti-coronavirus defence law”, saying it gives Orban unnecessary and unlimited power and is a means of cementing his position rather than battling the virus.

Dacian Çiolos, president of the centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, called the developments in Hungary “a red alert for liberal democracy in Europe and beyond.”

“It is shameful that this dreadful corona is abused in such a manner. The Commission and the Council should now take actions without prevarication,” he said.

After a state of emergency was declared in Hungary on 11 March, the new law gives Orban the power to indefinitely rule by decree until the government decides the emergency is over.

It removes the current requirement for MPs to approve any extensions to decrees. Elections cannot be held either during the emergency period.

It also introduces jail terms of up to five years for anyone spreading “falsehoods” about the virus or the measures against it, stoking worries for press freedom.

The measures came into effect as of midnight on Monday (30 March).

In other EU countries, emergency legislation has also tested the democratic fabric.

In Bulgaria, the government of Boyko Borissov, an admirer of Orbán, has proposed a controversial law akin to Hungary’s, mandating jail terms for those spreading fake news about infectious diseases. Following pressure by President Rumen Radev and a political outcry, the controversial texts were retracted.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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