EU Politicians Slam Hungary’s Pandemic State of Emergency Powers; Some Call For its Expulsion

By James Carstensen | April 1, 2020 | 9:09pm EDT
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in parliament during Monday’s vote. (Photo by Zoltan Mathe/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in parliament during Monday’s vote. (Photo by Zoltan Mathe/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin ( – European Union politicians are reacting negatively to a Hungarian government vote granting sweeping and indefinite emergency powers, with some going as far as to call for its removal from the E.U.

Hungary’s parliament on Monday approved in a 138-53 vote a measure allowing Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree until parliament rules otherwise.

“Clearly, the actions of the Hungarian government are incompatible with E.U. membership,” said Sophie in’t Veld, a liberal Dutch lawmaker who chairs the European parliament’s rule of law group.

“Orban’s state of emergency law effectively eliminates opposition,” tweeted Norbert Roettgen, head of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, urging the E.U.’s executive Commission to “act immediately.”

Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi went further, saying the E.U. must compel Orban to “change his mind” – or “expel Hungary from the Union.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday warned member-states against using the pandemic to undermine democratic principles and values.

“Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely,” she said in a statement. “Governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny."

Although von der Leyen didn’t name any country, only Hungary’s emergency decree is indefinite.

Spokesman Eric Mamer said the Commission would be analyzing and monitoring the final Hungarian law.

Several other E.U. members have also declared states of emergency, but most are subject to time limits – albeit with the possibility of repeated renewals.

In some cases, declared emergencies are explicitly governed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which does not specify time limits but does limit powers granted to governments, to ensure democratic values are upheld.

States of emergency in Spain and France must be renewed every 15 days. Italy’s expires on April 3 but is expected to be renewed as the E.U. country hardest hit by the pandemic continues to grapple with the crisis.

All three emergencies grant the governments powers including restrictions on movement, requisition of goods, the takeover of businesses, and the rationing of consumption of basic items.

Responded to von der Leyen’s comments, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltán Kovács said the measures being taken were “congruent with the [E.U.] treaties and the Hungarian constitution and targeted exclusively at fighting the coronavirus.”

Ryan McMaken, economist and political scientist at the U.S.-based Mises Institute, said that the powers Orban has granted himself are not very different from other E.U. governments have done, but may be subject to increased attention due to his unfavorable opposition to immigration.

“The only difference here seems to be that Hungary has taken de jure steps to recognize the powers being exercised by the executive in Hungary,” he said. Still, he added that Orban does appear to be aiming to maximize a political advantage from the virus.

“In Spain and Italy right now, for example, the regime rules by decree. The same is true in many U.S. states. In these places, chief executives issue edicts and there is no avenue for appeal,” he said. “When the other regimes of Europe stop locking their own populations in their homes and threatening their citizens with arrest for taking a walk, then we can see if Hungary returns to ‘normal’ as well.”

“Orban’s new powers have nothing to do with COVID-19 and have been planned for some time,” said Professor Armand de Mestral, an international law professor at McGill University, Canada.

“They violate the rule of law as required by the E.U. treaties and will certainly be condemned by the Court of Justice of the European Union when the matter gets there,” he said.

Constitutional and legal changes have expanded the power of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party since he took office in 2010, increasing its control over the judiciary, cultural organizations and the media. Relations between Hungary and the E.U. have become especially strained since the beginning of the migrant crisis in 2015 due to Orban’s anti-immigrant policies and refusal to take in refugees.

The European Parliament in 2018 triggered a mechanism, known as Article 7, calling on the E.U. to act against governments putting European values at risk. Even before the pandemic emerged, there had been no progress in that process.

“The European Commission should fully back Article 7 proceedings and launch urgent actions to challenge the emergency law before the E.U. Court of Justice,” argued Philippe Dam, advocacy director at European Human Rights Watch.

In the U.S., House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) labeled the Hungarian move a “power grab.”

“This legislation marginalizes the Hungarian parliament and allows prime minister Orban to rule by decree like a dictator,” he said. “Such a serious affront to democracy anywhere is outrageous, and particularly within a NATO ally and E.U. member.”


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