While scrolling my fb news feed, I stumbled upon an article on Breitbart, written by the hungarian MEP Tamas Deutsch (Fidesz – EPP). In the article, he condemned the liberal media, NGOs and left-wing parties for criticizing the new measures that Orban’s government put in place to fight the COVID-19 epidemic. The critics, he said, are targeting Orban but not other leaders that, basically, are now doing the same thing or have done the same thing in the past. As an example, he mentioned the national emergency measures established in France after the terroristic attacks in 2015 and those now implemented across Europe as a response to Corona Virus. None of these measures have met the same amount of criticism that the Hungarian Prime Minister is now facing, he continues.
Although he decided not to give an explanation to his accusations (‘We will leave it to the reader to provide the answer’), the comments to the article are a melting pot of attacks towards the EU, conspiracy theories and not-so-subtle racism, especially when it comes to comments on the hungarian immigration policy and how it has been met inside the EU institutions. We have to keep in mind, though, that Breitbart is a far-right syndicated news website, and Deutsch is part of a right-wing party – thus the comments and commentaries are, for the most part, expression of that particular right-wing environment.
COVID-19 situation in Hungary
Hungary has not suffered, as of now, as bad as other EU countries. It is still not clear, however, if this is because the peak of the pandemic is yet to reach the country or because the prehentive measures have worked as they were supposed to. Medical experts and the task force monitoring the pandemic are sure that hungarians will experience the peak on May, 3rd, adding that 1000 people have already signed up as volunteers to help hospitals and medical facilities when the worst comes. Budapest and the Pest county are the most affected by the virus (thus stronger measures are required in these areas – face masks or wearing a scarf will be mandatory in Budapest for people using public transportation starting April, 27th), whilst the county I live in (Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg, on the Ukranian border) has only seen 43 confirmed cases as of April, 23rd. Latest data show that Hungary has now more than 2.200 infected and 239 deceased.
‘No longer a democracy’
Ursula von der Leyen – European Commission President – is conscious that emergency measures are necessary when it comes to stressful periods like the one we are experiencing now, but these measures have to be ‘proportionate, within a limited time period and democratically controlled’. Thus the EU will be forced to act if such measures go beyond what is allowed. She didn’t, however, specifically mention Hungary in her statement.
A joint statement of 13 EU member states declared that they are ‘deeply concerned about the risk of violations of the principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights’, but the statement doesn’t mention any country in particular, although it was issued the day after the approval of the hungarian decree. Thus, Orban went on and signed the document, too.
Donald Tusk – President of the EPP – stated that the hungarian measures have been disproportionate and inadequate, but he didn’t go as far as supporting the expulsion of Fidesz from its european family.
In a powerful article, Balkan Insight titled that Hungary is no longer to be considered a democracy. In the words of Mr. Andras Bozoki, hungarian political scientist and former Minister for Culture, Hungary is now either an ‘electoral autocracy’ or a ‘competitive authoritarism’, so not a democracy nor a dictatorship but ‘something in between’. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn went even further, stating that the hungarian one is a dictatorial government inside the European Union, adding that the country should be stripped bare of its right to sit in the EU Council of Ministers. An article on eureport.co titled #Coronavirus coup, calling Hungary the black sheep of Europe (alongside Poland, which is now facing fierce criticism after the government tried to tighten the already strict laws on abortion rights, allegedly taking advantage of the current pandemic situation), with a problematic leader, thus being a dangerous precedent for other not-so-strong european democracies. Quoting this article, Mr. Dan Baer – former US ambassador to OSCE – wrote that the 'cancer on hungarian democracy preceded the virus': Orban’s governments have long been dismantling all those laws that kept the judiciary and media sectors independent from the political power. On the same page is also civico.eu, which sees this concentration of power as unprecedented in Europe, and calls on national media across Europe to dedicate news segments to the hungarian situation – a fundamental threat to our common interest – and on european and international institutions to strongly react to this unacceptable violation of European rules and values.
Freedom of the press in Hungary is a serious concern among many: according to Mr. Marton Gergely, the new bill aims at portraying journalists as potential criminals (the bill establishes a jail time up to 5 years for those found guilty of spreading false information on pandemic-related facts). Mrs. Veronika Munk of Index.hu is concerned whether or not critical media outlets will be able to survive, since they heavily depend on advertisement, but she still hopes that ‘things will not be worse, or as bad as in Russia, when it comes to the press’. On this matter, Reporters sans frontières places Hungary on the 89th position in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index (in 2019 it was 87th): things are not improving in a country where independent media journalists are banned from interviewing political leaders and access to information is more and more difficult for those working in non-government lead media.
But criticism also hit the EU and the broad international community. In his article, Mr. Dan Baer said that Orban’s move was some kind of wake-up call for Europe, which had failed to completely see and unknowledge the threatening hungarian situation in the past ten years. Orban’s move is yes unprecedented, but not surprising: we might think that both Europe and the US have seen Fidesz as a better option than the neo-nazi party Jobbik (which Orban has succefully instrumentalized for both domestic and international purposes). Fidesz still remains inside the EPP, although the party leaders decided to further prolong the suspension of Orban’s party from the group – suspension is now with an unspecified expiring date. Concerns about the situation in Hungary are certainly present, but party leaders prefer for Fidesz to remain in the orbit of the EPP, preventing the hungarian ruling party from joining a rival group. As Latvian Prime Minister told POLITICO, we have to always keep in mind the potential outcome of an action, thus it is better to ‘speak and try to understand’ in order to try and solve the issues that arise when it comes to a member state home policy.
Response to criticism
Hungary did not sit still. A blog article on the government english language website abouthungary.hu fiercely responded to the article on Civico Europa, describing it as a call to arms and a campaign against Hungary led by the EU’s left-liberal elite, great champions of European values. The article quotes the words of European Commissioner Vera Jourova, who reportedly stated that no decree issued in Hungary had violeted european regulations and guidelines. Furthermore, every country in the EU is free to see to their own legislative matters, especially in times of need. Hungary has not been the first, nor the last, country to see emergency measures regulate the life of its citizens when this was deemed necessary. The author of the article, Mr. Zoltan Kovacs (who is the hungarian Secretary of State for International communication and relations), also added that ‘the EU should focus its energies on finding ways to help member countries fight the virus’ which is now the only true emergency the world should be concerned about. Mr. Zoltan Kovacs also clarifies that the new hungarian rule doesn’t dissolve the Parliament, and he is surprsed that ‘in the midst of a deadly pandemic, anyone would have the time to debate another country’s approach to fighting this outbreak’.
Mr. Gerolf Annemans (BEL - Identity and Democracy) denounces the double standard with which the EU has met the various measures taken by the member states to face the pandemic. If Orban’s move has been criticised as the first steps towards dictatorship in Europe, the same cannot be said for Belgium, where the Parliament has now less powers than the hungarian one.
According to the critics, hungarian laws will lead to censorship and endanger the lives of the hungarian citizens. To this, another article on the same website responds that both the UK and the US decided not to act when the virus started to spread in their countries, worsening the situation of their citizens. On the other hand, Hungary decided to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Orban’s ‘rule by decree’ won’t be indefinite, since this measure will be withdrawn once the pandemic is over, and the hungarian government was one of the first to establish strong economic measures to protect those who will be most affected by the epidemic. Thus, the well-being of the hungarian citizens is the main priority for Orban’s cabinet, but this is not to be found in mainstream, liberal media coverage. Instead it feel like such criticism, aimed towards Hungary and not other countries – such as Canada, who decided that the spread of misinformation will be considered as a criminal offense – is a coordinated effort.
Matteo Renzi, former italian Prime Minister, tweeted that the EU must act on the hungarian situation and make Orban change his mind, and went as far as to suggest the expulsion of Hungary from the European Union. But there is no procedure in the the european law for expelling a member state from the Union. There are, however, less drastic but still powerful measures the EU is entitled to take when it comes to situations like this one.
POLITICO asked prominent european political figures to try and give some examples of what the European Union can do in order to ‘solve’ the hungarian situation.
The solutions are quite unanimous, and they can be summerized in the words of John Dalhiusen (European Stability Initiative): stand up to the bully.
For the most part, it’s all about the money. As all the other EU countries, Hungary also receives funding from the European Union. Money has to be allocated to Hungary conditionally, according to Dacian Ciolos (RO – Renew Europe), and only when Budapest decides to adhere to the rule of law. Keeping a close eye on how the money is used is fundamental, and the funding has to be redirected either to the civil society or, as the Mayor of Budapest proposes, to pro-EU groups and initiatives across the country. Pernille Weiss (DEN – EPP) goes as far as to propose to shut off the funding tap to all those countries – Hungary to start with – that do not comply with the EU regulations and values. In the words of Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice, ‘legal certainty and freedom of expression must be guaranteed’, so it is fundamental to monitor the application of the law in Hungary in order to allow journalists to do their job freely.
These sanctions can be the prelude for the application of the so called nuclear option under Article 7 of the TEU: if there is a clear risk (7.1) or the existence (7.2) of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 […], the Council may decide to suspend certain of the rights […], including the voting rights of the Representative of the Government of that Member State in the Council (7.3).
To clarify this Article, and also to highlight the importance of the core values of the European Union, I’ll quote the entirety of Article 2, the very foundation of our Union.
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy,equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail.
We, as Europeans, must keep in mind these values, and live in accordance with them. As politicians, the Members of the EU Institutions need to closely monitor the situation not only of Hungary, but also of all the other Member States that, one way or the other, are shifting towards something that cannot, and must not, be called democratic. As we have dramatically witnessed in the past, a strategy of appeasement is not the right path to follow.