Brussels has stopped criticizing Hungary’s imposition of an open-ended regime by Prime Minister’s decree, even as Viktor Orban’s autocratic government faces mounting accusations of taking power under the guise of the coronavirus.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, warned on Tuesday that emergency measures against the pandemic imposed by EU governments should be “strictly proportionate”, but did not mention Hungary by name.
The EU executive has only said it will “analyze” the new Hungarian law and “closely monitor” its implementation. The dull response is a sign of how the hesitant efforts of the bloc of 27 to combat autocratic creep increase the risk that governments may exploit the Covid-19 epidemic to undermine civil liberties.
EU commissioners are expected to meet on Wednesday during their regular pandemic emergency powers meeting with Hungary and other governments. Von der Leyen said it was “of the utmost importance” that the health crisis measures do not violate the fundamental principles and values of the EU. “They should not last indefinitely,” she said. “In addition, governments must ensure that these measures are subject to regular review.”
Its moderate tone contrasts with the criticisms expressed elsewhere on the powers granted to Mr. Orban by the Hungarian Parliament this week. The new law extends the state of emergency imposed in March, criminalizes obstructing official pandemic efforts and threatens up to five years in prison for intentionally spreading false information about it.
This added to fears about the direction of Mr. Orban’s regime, which has gradually eroded judicial independence and increased control over much of the media since he came to power in 2010.
Norbert Röttgen, head of the influential foreign affairs committee of the German parliament, said that this “effectively eliminates the opposition” in Hungary and was “a violation of fundamental principles which the 🇪🇺 cannot accept”.
“The European Commission must act immediately,” he tweeted. “The EU26, including Germany, must demonstrate that it will not tolerate this abuse of the corona crisis.”
Alexander Stubb, a figurehead of the European People’s Party, the main center-right group of the EU, said that if the time was right to expel Fidesz from Orban from the EPP, “this moment is now”.
“When you start to intrude on the basic principles of what we stand for, the punishment should be as severe as possible,” said Stubb, former Finnish Prime Minister. “In many ways, this is a leadership test for the whole of the EU and the EPP.”
The move from Hungary to the Prime Minister’s decree also sparked attacks from American politicians. Bernie Sanders, independent US senator campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the presidential elections in November, said that Orban’s decision was an example of how “authoritarian leaders used moments of crisis to take hold of uncontrolled power. “
Michael McCaul, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, said he was “ashamed that Prime Minister Viktor Orban was exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to take over dictatorial powers”.
The Hungarian government insists that measures are necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesperson, defended the new law by pointing to extraordinary anti-virus measures in other countries, including Belgium and Sweden.
The wide powers exercised by many other EU governments are a potential obstacle to further action by the Commission against Hungary. There are also theoretical guarantees regarding Mr. Orban’s new powers, including their withdrawal by Parliament.
Critics say it makes no sense because Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The review by the Constitutional Court of the Prime Minister’s decrees will also be ineffective because it is full of followers of the ruling party.
Another problem for Brussels is the heaviness of the so-called Article 7 disciplinary measure launched over 18 months ago by the EU for alleged violations of bloc rules and values by Hungary. Potential sanctions, including the suspension of EU voting rights, require unanimity, but Hungary and Poland – who are also covered by Article 7 – have said they will block action against the other.
Additional report by Guy Chazan in Berlin