Old farmers used to have a saying: ‘When the sun is shining, make hay.’ And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is doing just that.
Coronavirus has presented the most right-wing leader in the European Union (EU) with a gilt-edged opportunity to expand his already considerable powers and thumb his nose even more at Brussels.
No sooner had Covid-19 reared its head in Hungary than Orban’s government in Budapest imposed a 15-day state of emergency. In fairness, it’s a similar course of action that has occurred in most other EU states battling this pandemic.
Orban, always a leader with a perfect sense of timing, knows it’ll be hard to others to criticise him when they have been forced to roll back liberal measures — all to stop the coronavirus
Hungary has closed off its borders to passenger traffic except mostly for its own citizens. Universities and schools are holding classes only through distance learning, public events have been cancelled and people are being urged to stay home as much as possible.
But Orban being Orban, a leader who has never shied away from stepping on toes in Brussels, the Hungarian prime minister has called on parliament to grant him the right to extend those emergency powers for more than 90 days — and he has rejected opposition calls to limit the time.
State of emergency
Justice Minister Judit Varga has submitted a legislation to parliament that would extend the state of emergency indefinitely — and would impose prison sentences of up to five years on those hindering measures that are aimed at containing the spread of the virus and also on those spreading false information.
False information? That sounds awfully like an attempt to rein in press freedoms in Hungary even more.
Opposition parties told parliament that while they supported the government’s efforts to manage the crisis, they want a 90-day limit to the government’s special powers, which parliament could extend again if necessary. They also urged online voting if parliament cannot convene for some reason. Simply put, they’re afraid of a very slippery slope that ends up in an authoritarian state.
Orban, who has been in power since 2010 said the opposition’s accusations were unjustified and urged his ruling Fidesz party to push through measures in parliament with its two-thirds mandate, saying he needed “133 brave men” now. Orban’s ruling Fidesz party holds 133 of 199 seats in Hungary’s parliament which ensures the necessary two-third majority to change any laws.
He said parliament would have the right to withdraw the special powers at any point.
“We will resolve this crisis without you, even if you do not support this bill,” Orban has warned.
And his actions are being watched very carefully by European parliamentarians and the European Commission — the cabinet-like structure that’s responsible for the day-to-day running of the EU.
Just before the pandemic struck, leaders of five groups in the parliament in Strasburg had urged the leaders of the member states to act on the sanctions procedures on Poland and Hungary — which have been dragging on for years.
Courts under control
The EU commission launched Article 7 sanctions against the Warsaw government in 2017 for a judicial reform that increasingly puts the courts under political control.
The parliament triggered the same procedure against Orban’s Budapest government in 2018 mainly for curbing media freedom, attacking civil organisations, concerns over judicial independence, corruption, and rights of minorities and migrants.
But the process has been at an almost standstill in the council of member states. The six-month rotating presidencies of Austria and Romania managed not to put Orban’s misdemeanours on the European Council agenda. EU affairs ministers have discussed Hungary only under the Finnish EU presidency, which put rule of law at the centre of its programme last September and December. Croatia, which holds the rotating presidency in the current six months, was being pressured to push the issue of sanctions when Europe’s leaders meet.
But coronavirus and how to deal with the aftermath has changed everything.
There is also a reluctance of some leaders to take Orban to task on what is essentially an internal issue. Trouble is that those leaders are supposed to be the ones who ensure that the key principles of the EU are maintained. And those principles mean a commitment to democratic government, the independence of the media and judiciary, and freedom of assembly.
The reality is that across the EU, governments have been forced to roll back on freedoms in place since the aftermath of the Second World War. In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, EU states have locked down their borders, allowing only essential transport through — effectively ending the principle of the free movement of goods and people across the continent.
Orban, always a leader with a perfect sense of timing, knows it’ll be hard to others to criticise him when they have been forced to roll back liberal measures — all to stop the coronavirus.