Budapest, Hungary – In a letter addressed to EU Ministers of European Affairs, six major civil society organizations express their “concern” over how the Hungarian government is using the challenging situation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic as “an opportunity to further restrict human rights and erode the rule of law”.
The six organizations, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, urge the European Council to recognize the “grave implications” of the Hungarian government’s recent steps and to take “immediate measures”.
In light of the “already deteriorated state of the rule of law and human rights in Hungary”, they specifically urge the Council to include the Hungarian coronavirus response to the ongoing Article 7 procedure against Hungary, triggered in September 2018.
While there is no mechanism for forcing a member state out of the EU, sanctions under Article 7 could result in the suspension of membership rights, such as voting.
Unlikely to go anywhere
The joint statement insists that EU member states add in the agenda of the upcoming EU General Affairs Council session an Article 7 hearing on “the situation in Hungary” and to address to the government of Hungary “concrete recommendations” to safeguard respect for the rule of law and human rights in the country.
It also pleads for member states to ensure “enhanced monitoring of the Hungarian government’s use of EU funding”, including funds aimed at supporting member states during the public health crisis.
But according to Euronews’ political editor Darren McCaffrey, the Article 7 process is unlikely to go anywhere since another member state can simply veto it, and Hungary “has at least the backing of Poland and the Czech Republic”.
And with Brussels helping to fight a virus and battling to keep countries’ economies alive, ongoing rule of law issues might arguably “struggle to get on the agenda”.
That being said, MEPs passed last Friday a resolution condemning the Hungarian government’s actions during the coronavirus crisis as “totally incompatible with European values.” They also pleaded with the European Commission to look at whether Hungary had breached EU law and urged the Council to put Article 7 back on the agenda.
Civil society warns of sweeping emergency powers in Hungary
On March 30, the Hungarian parliament, in which the ruling Fidesz party wields a super-majority, adopted legislation vesting the government with sweeping, open-ended emergency powers, allegedly designed to prevent and mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in Hungary.
The Act on the Protection Against the Coronavirus, or “enabling act”, allows the government to “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations and implement additional extraordinary measures by decree.”
At the time, the United Nations, along with numerous NGOs and civil society organizations, had already expressed deep concerns regarding Hungary’s coronavirus emergency bill, warning some of its measures threaten the rule of law, the freedom of the press and would “give the government practically unlimited powers”.
In what could be seen as “troll diplomacy”, Hungary joined a statement adopted by EU member states, which insisted on the fact that coronavirus emergency measures must be temporary and in line with rule of law standards.
Hungary fell to its lowest ever positions in the latest World Press Freedom Index, compilated by Reporters Without Borders, which called the emergency bill a “completely disproportionate and coercive measure”.