Hungary Insight

COVID emergency powers: Is everyone picking on Hungary?

While scrolling through my newsfeed a couple of days ago, I found myself smiling at a Twitter post. hungary covid emergency powers

It said that Hungary joined a statement adopted by the member states of the European Union, urging that coronavirus emergency measures must be temporary and in line with rule of law standards.

Without directly mentioning Hungary, the statement was adopted by member states after Hungary’s parliament voted by two-thirds majority to give the Hungarian government the power to rule by decree without any time limit. It was a clear reference.

I found myself smiling, because I thought the post was from April Fool’s day. This wasn’t the case. It was published on April 2.

I stopped smiling. This was really happening.

Troll diplomacy or double standards?

Labelling Hungary’s action “troll diplomacy”, international observers also criticized the EU, pointing out that the original statement joined by Hungary was “toothless” because it did not even mention the country.

Meanwhile, statements criticizing Hungary’s extraordinary measures were coming from all sides. The European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the United Nations, and the chairman of the US House of Representatives all expressed concern about Hungary’s legislation.

Sophie in’t Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP, who chairs the European parliament’s rule of law group, called the actions “incompatible with EU membership”.

Responding to all of these statements, Zoltan Kovacs, the spokesman of Hungary’s Prime Minister, couldn’t catch a break writing blog posts, and refuting these allegations. He then criticized the organizations for what he called their “double standards”, pointing to other governments that like France or the Czech Republic that adopted extraordinary measures.

In the current order of things, autocrats around the world – hellbent to crush the remnants of democratic institutions – may well find this new state of emergency very comfortable.

Popular support and online protests

While it is true that other countries entered a state of emergency, Hungary’s legislation has been by far the most extreme. Hungary is the only country in Europe with indefinite time limit to the state of danger and the only country, whose measures also limit press freedom, with new legislation on the table, which threatens transgender rights and funding for opposition parties. hungary covid emergency powers

Kovacs also justifies the measures by pointing out their popular support. But Borsos Bálint, the Head of Communications at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, tells me over email that “This poll is based on the results pro-government research institute Nézőpont Intézet”, adding that “The institute regularly publishes poll results and other studies to back up the government’s statements, but they are often mistaken”.

What is more, with social distancing measures in force, worried citizens are unable to protest against the measures. Because of that, Hungarian online platform aHang organized an online protest, which was watched by thousands of people. The petition against the legislation was already signed by more than one hundred thousand people.

“Toothless” declarations won’t cut it

In defense of the enabling act, Judit Varga, the Justice Minister of Hungary, wrote a piece for Politico, in which she called Europe’s reaction “hysterical”, adding that the measures will last until the virus lasts, and that the Parliament can withdraw these powers at any time.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that Viktor Orban is using the coronavirus crisis to “fuel xenophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric.

Although this seems to be the case, the Parliament is currently controlled by the governing Fidesz party, which holds supermajority, and the party almost never votes against the government. Besides, the previous emergency measures adopted in 2016, which restrict the rights of asylum seekers, continue to be in place.

To add to this, part of the new legislation, which says that spreading false facts that could impede effectiveness of defense measures and raise fears of censorship, are permanent addition to the criminal code.

The EU statement that Hungary joined states that “We therefore support the European Commission initiative to monitor the emergency measures and their application to ensure the fundamental values of the Union are upheld”. hungary covid emergency powers

But to make Hungary change course, if the Commission finds that the country failed to ensure fundamental values, might require more than just a statement. Because what seems to be crystal clear is that “toothless” declarations that can’t even name the country are simply not going to cut it.

By Matej Voda 

Born in Prague, Matej Voda studied at Charles University and University College London. He currently pursues his graduate studies at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna. Previously, he worked and interned at EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prague-Based Association for International Affairs, and the Prague office of Euractiv. He enjoys cheese, theatre and Russian literature. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here! You can also find him on Twitter.

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