Sassoli shows his differences with von der Leyen over Hungary

European Parliament President David Sassoli and European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen give a press statement on the future of Europe after Brexit at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, 31 January 2020. [Olivier Hoslet/EPA/EFE]

European Parliament President David Sassoli has asked the European Commission to assess whether the new laws introduced in Hungary under the disguise of coronavirus emergency comply with the most important text of EU treaties, he said late on Tuesday (31 March).

Hungary’s parliament granted on Monday Prime Minister Viktor Orbán an open-ended right to rule by decree and introduced jail sentences for anyone hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information about the pandemic.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned on Tuesday that coronavirus emergency measures by EU countries must be “limited”. However, she didn’t mention Hungary of Orbán by name.

Von der Leyen warns against democratic backsliding without mentioning Hungary

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.

Many see in von der Leyen’s timid attitude an effort to shelter a sister party from retribution. Orbán’s Fidesz is affiliated to the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) where von der Leyen’s CDU sits.

Sassoli, who is from the centre-left Partito Democratico (S&D), did not mince his words:

“We want to get out of the crisis with our democracies intact. We have asked the European Commission, as the guardian of the EU treaties, to assess whether the new laws introduced in Hungary comply with Article 2 of our treaty. All European Union member states have a duty to uphold and protect these founding values. For us, parliaments must remain open and the press must remain free. Nobody can be allowed to use this pandemic to undermine our freedoms,” he stated.

Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union reads:

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the member states in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

The Commission has said it would analyse Hungary’s law and monitor its implementation. However, an Article 7 procedure, initiated by the European Parliament, hasn’t led too far.

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the law was “congruent with the (EU) treaties and Hungarian constitution, and targeted exclusively at fighting the coronavirus”.

“It upholds EU values, rule of law, press freedom,” he tweeted in response to the Commission’s comments.

Liberal EU lawmakers from the Renew Europe group, allied to French President Emmanuel Macron, derided the bloc’s failure to safeguard checks-and-balances in Hungary after years of tussles that have mostly failed to make Orbán change tack.

“The current coronavirus crisis should not be used as a smokescreen for abusing power,” said Dacian Cioloș, a Romanian member of the European Parliament and the head of Renew faction.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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