Pressure mounts on EU to take “swift” action against Hungary

MEPs and rights groups have heavily criticised the government of Viktor Orbán for passing an emergency bill that grants the government the power to rule by decree indefinitely.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

08 Apr 2020

In response to a question from this website on Tuesday, the European Commission conceded that it may now need to take “further” action against Hungary. A Commission spokesman said it was carrying out a “mapping exercise” in all Member States to check that any laws adopted during the crisis comply with EU and international regulations. He added, “There is particular concern about the case of Hungary and I can tell you that we will not hesitate to take further action if this is deemed necessary.”

The Commission had already warned Orbán that emergency powers he has assumed to combat the Coronavirus outbreak must be subject to proper parliamentary and media scrutiny. But the EU’s response so far has come under fire as it has not gone beyond political statements, some of which do not name Hungary directly and contain no hint of economic consequences.


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On Wednesday, the EU came under fresh pressure to step up its response, with the S&D Group saying, “Orbán has crossed all red lines” and “Hungary is becoming the first dictatorship in the EU,” while Parliament’s President David Sassoli said he will write to the Commission and the Council condemning the Hungarian government and calling for “swift action.”

Orbán’s Fidesz party is now, for the first time, also facing increasing pressure from its own political family in the European Parliament. In a letter, several delegations in the EPP have said it may be time for the parliamentary group, the biggest in Parliament, to sideline their Hungarian MEP colleagues.

The letter goes on to call for suspending the rights of the Fidesz MEPs in the group. Significantly, all Visegrad members of the EPP have signed the letter, indicating there is no longer any East/West divide in their response to Orbán.

In the letter to the group leadership, the heads of 13 national delegations say they are “deeply concerned by the developments in Hungary, in particular the law passed on March 30 which de facto allows the Hungarian Government to rule by decree, without a clear end date.”

It goes on, “We urge you to draw the necessary consequences from this additional attack on our European values and on the founding values of the EPP. We expect our EPP group to take a clear stance, which should at least mirror the decisions of the EPP party.”

"There is particular concern about the case of Hungary and I can tell you that we will not hesitate to take further action if this is deemed necessary" Commission spokesperson

The letter is signed by 63 MEPs, one-third of all EPP group members.  It has been argued by some that conditioning access to EU funds based on Member States’ respect for the founding values of the EU has, in the case of Hungary, never been more urgent and could be one possible EU sanction.

Renata Uitz, chair of the Comparative Constitutional Law programme at the Central European University, said, “Otherwise, the Union will continue to support a regime that has already demonstrated its commitment to abusing the unlimited emergency powers it arrogated.”

Hungarian Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi has reportedly called concerns about Orbán’s power grab “unnecessary” but former Council President Donald Tusk said in a letter to the EPP it should consider once again expelling Orbán’s Fidesz party once the Coronavirus crisis ends. “Making use of the pandemic to build a permanent state of emergency is politically dangerous, and morally unacceptable,” Tusk wrote.

Former commission chief Jacques Delors said on March 28 that a lack of European solidarity, particularly with respect to the EU and Hungary over the coronavirus crisis, presented “a mortal danger” to the bloc.

The EU has, in the past, taken Hungary to court for its muzzling of non-governmental organisations, media and academics, but has had little success in forcing Orbán to change tack. The current row surrounds the Hungarian Parliament’s adoption last month of the Authorisation Act which allows Orbán to rule by decree for an indefinite amount of time.

The new plans would also see up to five years of imprisonment for those accused of spreading misinformation, as well as up to eight years for those found to be breaching the quarantine measures introduced as a means to stem the Coronavirus outbreak in Hungary. Moreover, by-elections and referendums can no longer be held in the country for as long as the state of emergency period is in effect.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said she is “particularly concerned with the situation in Hungary”, saying, “We will take action as necessary as we have done already in the past.”

"The EU’s response so far has come under fire as it has not gone beyond political statements, some of which do not name Hungary directly and contain no hint of economic consequences"

More than a dozen EU Member States had previously signed a letter saying that they were “deeply concerned about the risk of violations of the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights arising from the adoption of certain emergency measures.” The letter did not explicitly mention Hungary, and the Orbán government, in response, even joined the signees.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has mentioned the possibility of financial sanctions against Hungary as a way to ensure basic rights are upheld, while Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he rejected “any authoritarian restriction like the one that happened in Hungary.”

In an interview on 3 April with Kossuth Radio, Orbán defended the move to allow him to rule by decree without any sunset clause. Orbán claimed that “there are some who are eager to seize control of the country – they would like to plunder it and to obtain its resources. This network is headed by George Soros, it is his people in Brussels who are in the positions from which criticisms are being levelled at us.”

Amid heightened focus on newly-introduced measures to fight the Coronavirus, Orbán’s government has introduced several controversial draft bills. Among them is a draft law that ends legal gender recognition for transgender people.

The bill, submitted on Transgender Day of Visibility, seeks to introduce the term “sex at birth” to the Civil Registry Act with the definition of “the biological sex determined by primary sexual characteristics and chromosomes.”

“Sex at birth” would then replace “gender” in the civil registry, Index reported, and the bill would forbid altering this entry. This change would impact official documents such as identification cards, driving licences and passports.

The government also introduced draft legislation to classify details of the country’s largest infrastructure project ever, a €2.3 billion agreement with China to modernise the Budapest-Belgrade railway. Around 85 percent of the costs will be loaned by China while the rest will be paid by the Hungarian state upfront.

"Making use of the pandemic to build a permanent state of emergency is politically dangerous, and morally unacceptable" Donald Tusk, former Council President

Meanwhile, in a report published on Tuesday, Amnesty International Hungary said the institutional independence of the Hungarian judiciary has been “severely undermined.”

Members of the judiciary interviewed for the report said their independence to make decisions remained largely intact, but the judiciary as a separate branch of power “was under attack from the courts’ central administration (NJO) and from other branches of power (executive, legislative).” They also highlighted that attacks on the judiciary by pro-government media had recently intensified.  

Elsewhere, Hungarian investigate media outlet Atlatszo has reported that relatives of State Secretary for Sport Tünde Szabó advertised face masks and disinfectant for bulk sale via social media. The husband of Szabó’s twin sister’s daughter, Dániel Vasvári, offered large amounts of masks and disinfectant for sale via Instagram. In another development, the European Court of Justice recently ruled Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic breached EU law by rejecting migrant quotas.

The highest EU court ruled on 2 April that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic failed their obligations under EU law by refusing to take in refugees under a mandatory one-off relocation scheme in 2015. The court said there had been an infringement by the three Member States as they had failed to adopt a decision by the European Council to distribute 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU states.

According to the court, the Czech Republic and Poland initially agreed to take in 50 and 100 migrants respectively, but fell short of that, while Hungary did not agree to take anyone in.

In response to the ruling, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said “the judgement has no further consequence." Varga added, "As the ‘quota decisions’ have long since ceased to have effect, we have no obligation to take in asylum seekers."

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