We can’t fall for Viktor Orbán’s masquerade

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

EP Plenary session Emergency Legislation in Hungary and its impact on the Rule of Law and fundamental rights [European Union, 2020]

We should not be fooled by the latest development in Hungary – ending one state of danger, while simultaneously declaring another – represents the actions of an increasingly autocratic state, writes Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield.

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, Greens/EFA MEP, is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the rule of law in Hungary.

During the Coronavirus crisis, European governments have implemented various extraordinary measures to tackle the health emergency, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the only prime minister to rule by decree without any scrutiny or ‘sunset clause’. The Hungarian government have since claimed, with much fanfare, that they will end the emergency powers in the near future.

However, the EU cannot fall for the trap of thinking that this is the end of the story – over the last decade, the Hungarian government has systematically weakened checks and balances, took advantage of the Covid-19 situation to gain even more extensive powers, and is now finding ways to extend them further in the uncertain aftermath of the crisis.

In Hungary, the rule of law has now been undermined to the extent that the country’s democratic status has been downgraded. Freedom House, which assesses countries’ democratic attributes, recently labelled Hungary a ‘transitional or hybrid regime’, to reflect the increase in biased state media coverage, high-level corruption and the politicisation of state institutions in recent years.

Orbán’s government has threatened citizens with jail terms of up to five years for ‘intentionally spreading misinformation in public”. Several people were detained under this decree, including an opposition party member for sharing a Facebook post. At the same time, the deadline for access to information requests was also extended from 15 to 45 days, meaning that it was harder to access vital health-related public interest information in the midst of the crisis.

The state of emergency imposed on Hungarian citizens was at odds with the Council of Europe’s call for measures to be ‘proportional to the threat posed by the spread of the virus’ and ‘limited in time’. More than 100 decrees have been introduced since the emergency law was extended on 30 March. Orbán’s government claims that imposing a state of emergency in Hungary allowed the government to better manage the pandemic, but many of these decrees bear no relevance to the risks posed by coronavirus.

With democracy increasingly under threat over the last decade of Orbán rule, and as the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the rule of law in Hungary, I have been particularly concerned about the latest measures in Hungary. I have urged European leaders to condemn and monitor the actions of the Hungarian government, and to take action to ensure that the rule of law is upheld in all European Union Member states.

I was not alone. In April, the European Parliament declared the actions of the Hungarian government ‘totally incompatible with European values’, and 13 national governments issued a joint statement calling for coronavirus emergency measures to be temporary and in line with rule of law principles. There are also many dissenting voices in Hungary itself. I receive emails from concerned citizens on a daily basis – I know that many Hungarian citizens did not see Orbán’s indefinite emergency measures as proportional, reasonable or necessary.

On 26 May, Hungary’s Justice Minister, Judit Varga, announced that the government would bring an end to this so-called “state of danger” and the two bills were then voted through in parliament this week, on Tuesday 17 June. The first bill terminated the State of Danger (T/10747) but the second bill creates unclear and unlimited ‘Transitional Provisions related to the Termination of the State of Danger’ (T/10748).

While Orbán seemingly declared an end to the deeply controversial state of emergency, NGOs across Europe have branded this an ‘optical illusion’. With the introduction of the additional legislative proposal on transitional arrangements, the Hungarian government could create the legal basis for a new “health emergency” in the country, which can be declared by the Government for a period of six months without parliamentary approval and can be renewed indefinitely.

In fact, the transitional bill paves the way for the permanent suspension of legislative control, and could allow Orbán to continue ruling by decree. ‘Ending Hungary’s state of emergency won’t end authoritarianism’ wrote Human Rights Watch, in response to last Tuesday’s announcement. Several other NGOs declared this to be a ‘never-ending story’ comparing the amendment of the state of medical emergency in Hungary to the creation of a ‘little sister’ bill which continues to restrict fundamental rights and has minimal constitutional safeguards.

We should not be fooled by this latest development in Hungary – ending one state of danger, while simultaneously declaring another – represents the actions of an increasingly autocratic state. While this transitional bill masquerades as a response to the global pandemic, we need to make sure that Orbán’s anti-democratic measures do not slip under our radar. Several critics of Hungary’s indefinite state of emergency – myself included – have since been contacted by Hungarian media and government officials, demanding apologies for our criticism. The Hungarian government does not deserve our apologies, but instead, warrants our increased vigilance as we work to prevent its continued dismantling of democracy within the European Union.

At the EU level, we need to ensure that the distribution of EU funds to member states is conditional upon upholding key EU values, including the preservation of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. We need coordinated, decisive action against the actions of Orbán including the restarting of Article 7 proceedings on Hungary as soon as possible, with concrete recommendations adopted by the Council. Both Germany and Portugal need to prioritise preserving the rule of law during their upcoming EU Council Presidencies.

As the bill which prevents trans and intersex people from seeking legal gender recognition came into force in Hungary last week, and the ECJ has ruled that Hungarian ‘transit zones’ for migrants are ‘detention’, we have a responsibility to make sure that Europe protects all citizens, including Hungarian citizens from the actions of their own governments. We cannot fall into Orbán’s trap, but must instead remain dedicated to safeguarding the rule of law and fundamental rights. We want Hungarian citizens to remain European citizens, but we do not want them to be ‘second-rate citizens’ in the European Union.

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