The governing Fidesz-KDNP alliance pushed through the bill through the Hungarian Parliament on Monday, leveraging its two-thirds majority. The bill passed with 138 MPs voting in favour and 53 again
The ruling, which comes without a set time limit, prompted an outcry from MEPs along with human rights groups, civil society organisations and members of the Hungarian opposition.
EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said the EU would assess whether Hungary’s emergency legislation adheres to rule of law standards, adding, “Of course, we will verify if it's in line with our vision on the rule of law and fundamental rights and if it's needed to take an initiative.”
Spanish deputy Iratxe García, S&D group leader, said, “Europe is facing unprecedented economic, social and public health challenges and unprecedented measures are being taken in response. However, this is no excuse for an indefinite lockdown of democracy.”
“With these moves, Orbán is only serving his domestic political interests with public health concerns as a cover. No matter the circumstances, no government can be allowed to introduce unlimited powers.”
She added, “I call on the European Commission as guardians of the treaties to urgently assess compliance with the values of our Union and also for the Member States to address this immediately in the framework of the Article 7 discussions on Hungary in the Council.”
Another senior MEP, Martin Schirdewan, co-leader of the GUE/NGL group, also warned against “authoritarian drifts” and “power grabs”, saying this was “of concern.”
“With these moves, Orbán is only serving his domestic political interests with public health concerns as a cover. No matter the circumstances, no government can be allowed to introduce unlimited powers” Iratxe García, S&D group leader
“The Coronavirus crisis must not be used as an excuse by governments to take authoritarian measures and curb democratic and civil rights.”
The opposition had demanded a time limit for the government’s expanded powers, but the ruling parties argued that such a limit was detrimental to fight the Coronavirus outbreak in the long term, for example if parliament was not able to meet in 2020 due to the coronavirus.
Hungary’s opposition, however, has expressed fears that Orbán will prolong the state of emergency for years under the pretext of the outbreak.
One opposition politician has called the Bill on Protection against Coronavirus “nothing short of a coup d’etat.”
Some observers have warned that Hungary was heading towards dictatorship.
Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić, in a letter to Orbán, said, “An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed.”
The letter says, “The COVID-19 pandemic legitimately prompted CoE member states to take drastic measures to protect public health. These measures are restricting a number of individual rights and liberties enshrined in constitutions and in the European Convention on Human Rights.”
“The Coronavirus crisis must not be used as an excuse by governments to take authoritarian measures and curb democratic and civil rights” Martin Schirdewan, GUE/NGL co-leader
It goes on “An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed and that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights are strictly proportionate to the threat which they are supposed to counter.”
In response to the attacks, Orbán has reportedly told his critics, “If you are not able to help us in the current crisis, please at least refrain from hindering our defensive efforts.”
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the greatest challenges facing the European Union were migration and Coronavirus. “Unfortunately, it seems both will stay with us in the long term,” Szijjarto said, adding that EU Member States faced similar challenges in connection with the virus.
In reference to the Coronavirus, the foreign minister said, “The wave of illegal migration is now not only a security or cultural threat, but also a very serious health risk.”
Prolonging a state of emergency is not without precedent in Hungary. Citing a threat of mass migration in 2015, the government has prolonged a state of emergency for several years despite falling numbers of migrants reaching Hungary’s borders.
On 24 March, the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee approved a resolution that said that any measure adopted by the Hungarian government in response to the pandemic “must respect the EU’s founding values.”
At the time, Spanish Socialist member Juan López Aguilar said, “We are aware that Member States have a responsibility to take protective measures in these difficult times, but these measures should always ensure that fundamental rights, rule of law and democratic principles are protected.”
“It is little surprise that Hungary, with its record of undermining media freedom, should be the first EU Member State to make such an extreme and opportunistic power grab” Reporters Without Borders
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has sent an open letter to the European Commission, along with eight other organisations representing the defence of media freedoms, expressing their concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is being used by governments, not just Hungary, to “undermine fundamental rights and the free flow of information.”
They specifically say the Hungarian law “represents a step towards a complete repression of press freedom.”
“It is little surprise that Hungary, with its record of undermining media freedom, should be the first EU Member State to make such an extreme and opportunistic power grab.”
“The few remaining independent media outlets in the country are regularly attacked and accused of spreading “fake news” for raising simple questions about the government’s preparedness and strategy for tackling the pandemic.”
“If approved, this new law would grant the Hungarian government a convenient tool to threaten journalists and intimidate them into self-censorship. We fear this is a step toward the complete repression of media freedom in Hungary that could outlive the pandemic,” RSF adds.
On Tuesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen issued a statement which, while it did not name Hungary, made it clear the EU will not accept any emergency measures which are not “proportionate.”
It reads, “It is of outmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles. Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect of freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times.”
“Emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely. Moreover, governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny.”
It concludes, “The Commission will closely monitor, in a spirit of cooperation, the application of emergency measures in all Member States.”