Despite the EU’s (albeit lukewarm) challenges to the Hungarian government for years, it has continued to erode liberal democracy in the country. On Monday, and under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic, Viktor Orban executed an unprecedented power grab, allowing him to rule by decree. His coronavirus bill also introduces punitive actions for misinformation, making anyone deemed to be spreading what the state deems to be fake news about its response to the pandemic liable to up to five years in prison.
Whilst technically the Hungarian parliament or constitutional court can revoke these emergency laws, in practice, the ruling Fidesz Party controls both these organs of the state, making this extremely unlikely. The checks and balances of a functioning democracy have been struck down, perhaps fatally. The prime minister’s power is now absolute and for the first time in the history of the European Union, we risk losing a country to authoritarianism.
If this is an historic moment for the European Union, it is a terrifying one for Hungarians, many locked down in their apartments, fearing for their fundamental rights. No doubt popular protest will be fierce when the pandemic abates.
For the EU, Orban’s move is an existential threat to its values. Left unattended, Hungary’s steady erosion of its democracy could destroy the bloc from within.
On its own behalf and that of the Hungarian people, the EU must act.
Firstly, the Commission must condemn, unequivocally and specifically, the actions of the Hungarian government. This means the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen abandoning her political allegiance to the European People’s Party (EPP), to which she and Orban belong, to stand up for the Union. New legal infringement proceedings should be considered, and an emergency rule of law report brought forward as soon as possible.
Secondly, EU member states need to bring forward a formal Article 7 procedure against the Hungarian government, enabling them to suspend certain of Hungary’s member state rights, as the European Parliament has repeatedly requested.
Thirdly, both the European Commission and Council should take action against the alleged use of EU funds by Hungary’s governing elite to consolidate their one-party state and enrich Mr Orban’s oligarch friends. A bold conditionality principle should be adopted in the EU’s multiannual financial framework – its 7-year budget – to ensure that EU money destined for Hungary actually ends up where it belongs: with the people.
Fourthly, Orban’s Fidesz Party must be expelled from the EU’s governing centre-right EPP Party, with immediate effect. Once a moderate, great European political movement, associated with titanic European politicians of the present and past – Helmut Kohl, Donald Tusk and Wilfred Martens – the EPP has regrettably provided legitimacy to Orban for too long.
The pandering of centre-right political parties – including the Tories in the UK and the Republicans in the US – to the populist and nationalist right has led to the corrosion of the very post-war institutions they once said were the pillars of our security. It is time for it to end.
Lastly, the international community – including countries like the UK and others who still claim to defend and promote liberal democracy – must take a stand. Britain may have left the European Union, but it has not left Europe, and is not immune to the events happening in its backyard. Neither Britain nor the European Union can tolerate a shift towards authoritarianism in central or eastern Europe.
In the aftermath of Orban’s actions, the silence from those supposedly tasked with defending our values is deafening. As former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi clearly stated, these actions are incompatible with EU membership. It is high time that those who still care about liberal democracy make that crystal clear.
Guy Verhofstadt and Sophie In ‘t Veld are members of the European Parliament