Commission under fire for not launching legal action against Hungary for breaching rule of law

A stormy debate in Parliament saw several MEPs demand the executive launch the so-called Article 7 procedure against Hungary, under which the country’s access to EU funding could be suspended.

Viktor Orbán | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

14 May 2020

The Commission has ruled out any immediate action against Hungary, saying instead that it would continue to “closely monitor” an emergency law introduced by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The so-called Coronavirus emergency law has given nationalist premier Orbán sweeping powers.

Hungary’s parliament, dominated by Orbán’s ruling party, handed the prime minister the power to rule by decree until his government decides the Coronavirus crisis is over.


In a debate on Thursday, MEPs warned that the indefinite extension of the state of emergency, the authorisation to rule by decree and the “weakening” of the national parliament’s oversight are “totally incompatible with European values.”

But, replying to the attacks, Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová sought to defend the EU’s decision, telling members, “the important thing is that we are monitoring these measures and looking at how they are being applied.”

“The time limit is our biggest concern and we are assessing each day if we can take legal action. We are closely monitoring the measures under emergency law but, no, we are not yet opening infringement procedures.”

“We are closely monitoring the measures under emergency law but, no, we are not yet opening infringement procedures” Věra Jourová, Commission Vice-President

She added, “I have heard MEPs say today that EU funds to Hungary should be conditional on the rule of law being upheld and that is the proper thing to do.”

“Today the Commission will debate the MMF and I believe that such conditionality has to be maintained.”

Jourová recalled her upbringing in the Czech Republic and being under Russian occupation, saying, “We used to dream of living in a free society. Now, because of Coronavirus some of our freedoms have had to be restricted. But the Hungarian people dream of going back to their democratic principles and I believe this will happen.”

“We need to have a dialogue with Hungary and the Commission must do its job. The international community also must put pressure on Hungary to make sure it comes back to the club of democratic countries. This is a major challenge for the EU.”

She told the debate that emergency measures enacted in Hungary and in other countries “must not last indefinitely and must be subject to regular scrutiny. It does not mean switching off the law.”

“We are actively monitoring all emergency measures to see if they comply with EU law. The case of Hungary raises particular concerns because its emergency measures are even more extensive than in other Member States.”

She highlighted attacks on the Hungarian media, saying, “It is  more important than ever not to limit free speech. In Hungary, the environment the media operates in has been deeply degrading for some time. We need reliable journalism and journalists should be able to work freely.”

“We are now entering a new phase of the pandemic in the EU which means the exceptional powers introduced in some countries should be gradually removed with more targeted measures so that we get back to what I would call the old normal.”

She also told MEPs she was “well aware” of recent incidents in Hungary which have caused concern, including on Tuesday when a 64-year-old man was detained by police at his home in northeast Hungary and taken into custody on suspicion of “fear mongering.”

“Hungary cannot currently be considered a fully-fledged democracy anymore, yet the Commission still fails to sanction Hungary and the problems there just go on and on” Iratxe García Pérez, S&D Group leader

The man was quizzed in connection with a post he made on Facebook which, according to police, alleged that the country's leadership had deliberately timed the lifting of curfew restrictions to coincide with the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic, which the man suggested could lead to mass infections.

In the post he made a plea not to relax curfew restrictions on the day after the projected peak of the pandemic and thus, as he put it, “send thousands to their deaths.”

Referring to Orbán, he said, "You are a cruel tyrant, but remember, all dictators have failed so far.”

In the commissioner’s debate with MEPs, Irish left-wing member Clare Daly called on the EU to immediately suspend EU funds to Hungary, saying that failure to do so “will betray many countries” while encourage others to behave in the same way as Orbán.

Luxembourg EPP deputy Christophe Hansen said, “I am tired of the Commission saying it still sees no need for infringement procedures.  Now is the time for action and I am fed up with bland statements like those we have heard from the commissioner today.”

Spanish deputy Iratxe García Pérez, the S&D Group leader, said, “Hungary cannot currently be considered a fully-fledged democracy anymore yet the Commission still fails to sanction Hungary and the problems there just go on and on.”

She added, “This failure by the Commission to act is an attack on the EU’s wider reputation and we cannot allow this to continue. Article 7 should be triggered and infringement procedures started. The EPP must also stop protecting Orbán.”

However, Nicolas Bay, a French ID member, praised Orbán and his government “for not bending to the moralising Left.”

He said, “Today is yet another hostile debate about Hungary, which will be just as useless as the last one.”

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