All governments, cities and regions across Europe are confronted with a health crisis of unprecedent dimensions. To confront such a crisis, all governments had to take emergency measures curtailing civil liberties, to prevent the collapse of their health care systems.
However, restrictions to fundamental rights and freedoms, even in a crisis such as the one we are facing, should only be used as a measure of last resort. In addition to this, it is fundamental that the need to adopt urgent measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic does not endanger democratic checks and balances.
This is the reason why we observe with deep concern the latest developments in Hungary: On 30 March, the Hungarian Parliament passed a bill proposed by the FIDESZ-led Government, allowing the rule by decree as long as the COVID-19 will last. What is particularly worrying in this context is that the assessment of the end of the crisis is up to the Government itself, with the result of giving to Prime Minister Orbán quasi-unlimited and unchecked power until then.
The need to speed up the legislative process in times of emergency cannot jeopardise the right of sovereign parliaments to review the laws passed by the government.
MEPs held a debate during their plenary session on 15 May on the emergency legislation in Hungary. In the exchange of views with the EC's Vice-President Vera Jourová and with the Croatian Presidency of the EU, a majority of MEPs underlined that the emergency measures (taken by the Hungarian Government to fight the COVID-19 pandemic) are in violation of EU rules and values. Many of them thus called on the European Council to move forward on the Art.7 procedure.
First up on #EPlenary agenda this morning, we debate the erosion of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary
No, Mr Orbán: #COVID19 cannot be used as cover for a lockdown on democracy
— S&D Group (@TheProgressives) May 14, 2020
What MEPs have particularly stressed is that emergency measures to address the coronavirus crisis should be temporary and proportionate and that they must allow for checks and balances. Moreover, they should be limited in scope: the state of emergency should only be used to adopt measures that are strictly necessary to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, Mr. Orbán has clearly exploited the new powers granted to him to move forward with his own political agenda. For instance, on 5 May, the Hungarian Parliament refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the first ever legally binding international instrument aimed at combating violence against women. This is particularly shocking considering that, during the lock-down measures, several countries across Europe reported a significant rise in domestic violence incidents, with women being the most frequent victims of abuse.
S&D President Iratxe Garcìa, intervening at the European Parliament plenary, voiced the deep worries of progressive Europeans regarding such a decision:
“During the pandemic, cases of gender-based violence have increased alarmingly in Hungary and, far from helping, Fidesz presented a declaration in Parliament not to ratify the Istanbul Convention so that those who are committing such violence are not punished. This cannot continue. What is the Council waiting for?”
Moreover, the “emergency bill” adopted by the Hungarian Government on 30 March has also introduced a new type of criminal offense for spreading “fake news” during the “state of danger.” This provision could further limit the freedom of the press in a country where the main media are already largely dominated by government propaganda and the international rankings on media pluralism and freedom have slipped over the last years.
"This is unprecedented - The NGO @freedomhouse has stated that it considers a country in the EU to no longer be a democracy."
— S&D Group (@TheProgressives) May 14, 2020
According to the World Press Freedom Index, Hungary has seen its position in the global ranking further decline (from 87th to 89th, the worst score in the EU only after Bulgaria).
Last but not least, the health of local democracy is a core concern for our Group. During the pandemic, we have seen in Hungary the unilateral introduction of a number of measures that deprive local governments of important revenues (such as car taxes and parking charges) in a moment when local governments are struggling more than ever to cope with the devastating effects of the virus and its economic consequences. These put extra strains on local public services. It is certainly not a coincidence that these measures disproportionately affect local governments run by the opposition forces.
We fear that the doings of the Hungarian government could set a precedent for further attempts to violate the right of local self-government and centralise power at the level of the national executive.
This is particularly worrying because elected Hungarian local representatives are not only key players in showing the democratic alternative to an ever more powerful government, but they are also on the front line of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
We, as the PES Group in the Committee of the Regions, strongly condemn any violation of the independence and of the constitutional powers of the local authorities and of their elected leaders and we express our solidarity to them.
In this situation, it is of crucial importance that the EU continues its development as a community of values, based on the rule of law, on democracy and on fundamental rights. The European Commission has to assess urgently the proportionality and lawfulness of the emergency measures taken by all Member States. It should not wait with this assessment until the first annual report on the rule of law is due in autumn.
EU leaders and the Council of the EU need to put back on the agenda a real discussion on the respect of the rule of law within the European Union, and use the instruments offered by the EU Treaties in cases of violations.
Moreover, the European Commission, in its next proposal for the EU budget, should also make a stronger link between the disbursement of EU funds and the respect of the rule of law. Of course, this should not happen at the expense of the progressive municipalities that cannot be blamed for the actions of their governments (as it is the case in Hungary).
On the contrary: EU funds should be devolved even more and the local levels should be empowered to support the civil society, NGOs, citizens’ movements and all those who contribute to building a rule of law culture and to fighting corruption. This is key to counter-balance the excessive concentration of powers in the hands of the central government and to prevent populism and authoritarianism, in particular in the severe social, economic and cultural crisis we are going to face in the coming months and years.
The whole European progressive family is committed to ensure that the COVID-19 crisis is not used as an excuse to undermine the rule of law, democratic local self-governance, the freedom of the press and of expression, and women’s’ rights!