Hungary: EU Must React Swiftly to Latest Blow to Democracy Amidst Pandemic

Press release
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FIDH is appalled by the recent adoption by the Hungarian government of an emergency law allegedly aimed at providing at a better response to the health crisis, but which seriously threatens the fundamental tenets of democracy, in a country where these are already weakened by a decade-long attack at the hands of the ruling party, Fidesz. FIDH alerts against the risk that the government will misuse the crisis to consolidate anti-democratic rule in the country, and urges the European Union (EU) and all its member states to swiftly and firmly react to yet one more attempt by the Hungarian government to undermine the Union’s core principles and compromise EU solidarity at a time when it is most needed. The health crisis must not become a pretext to spark a democratic crisis within Europe, and democracy and fundamental rights must not become victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a rapid twist of events, and as the world’s, and Europe’s, attention is fixed on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hungarian Parliament passed, on 30 March, emergency legislation granting unprecedented and open-ended powers to the executive to rule by decree in a virtually unlimited range of policy areas. Under the pretext of strengthening the government’s ability to effectively respond to the spread of the virus, Prime Minister Viktor Orban struck a critical blow to the country’s democratic foundations on Monday, after almost 10 years of consistent efforts to move Hungary further away from those foundations, which also constitute the core elements on which the EU is built.

Indeed, while countries across Europe and around the globe are declaring states of emergency, which legally enable temporary derogation from certain human rights responsibilities and adoption of extraordinary measures necessary to bring an end to the emergency situation, the ruling party in Hungary appears to be leveraging this crisis as an excuse to vest the government with unfettered powers. Contrary to what has been done in other countries in Europe, Hungarian law contains no procedural, substantive or temporal limitations, and is therefore not only inconsistent with Hungarian constitutional law, but also in clear contravention of Hungary’s European and international human rights obligations.

FIDH has long alerted against repeated attacks by the Hungarian government on EU standards, particularly those enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), and calling for a strong reaction by the EU and its member states. However, despite growing criticism, efforts by Mr Orban to progressively dismantle democratic checks and balances and restrict fundamental rights in Hungary have overall been met by a mild and slow reaction by the Union which, for many years ignored or, at best, overlooked the gravity of the situation, and lingered as a so-called ‘illiberal democracy’ grew in the heart of Europe.

Faced now with an attempt by the Hungarian government to present as a legitimate response to the pandemic what is, in reality, an authoritarian power grab in disguise, the EU and member states must finally rise to the occasion and not only firmly condemn this latest move by Viktor Orban, but fast forward to assessing, by all means at their disposal, the new law’s consistency with EU standards, and its potential impact on all Article 2 TEU values well beyond this emergency. We particularly urge the Commission to launch, without delay, accelerated infringement proceedings to swiftly examine the emergency law’s conformity with EU law, and to closely monitor its application to ensure that the EU’s core principles are upheld. We also call on the Council and member states to treat the matter with the highest priority, by urging a discussion at the General Affairs Council and acting as appropriate, including in the context of the ongoing procedure laid down in Article 7 TEU.

With regard to the use of emergency powers in the EU in general, FIDH also calls on the EU to swiftly move towards the adoption of a framework within which these powers should be exercised by member states and the EU institutions in the context of the pandemic. This should mirror international standards and reflect the principle that any emergency law must still respect basic democratic principles, including the rule of law and fundamental rights, and that although derogations may be justified by the exceptional circumstances, they are only lawful to the extent that they are strictly necessary and proportionate to counter the threat to public health, and for only as long as the conditions giving rise to the emergency remain present.

The health crisis must not become a pretext to intensify a democratic and rule of law crisis within Europe, and democracy and fundamental rights must not become victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they should be the undeniable foundations on which any effective emergency response should be built.


What is exceptional about the recent measures taken by the Hungarian government is not only the absence of an expiry date for the new emergency powers, but that the law contains no provisions delimiting the scope or purpose of the actions the government may take pursuant to it. This bypasses the necessity and proportionality test required for any emergency measure to be lawful, and makes it impossible for parliament to exercise an effective oversight function, including by attempting to amend or repeal the law. Furthermore, the ruling party commands a supermajority in parliament, thus providing the opposition with little incentive or realistic possibility to object to any action taken by the government. In essence, the law empowers the Orban government to do whatever it deems appropriate, for as long it pleases it. Further, the possibility of challenging government action or seeking an effective remedy, including for rights limitations, will be largely unavailable as long as the emergency law remains in place, because the operation of the ordinary courts has already been heavily curtailed in response to the pandemic, and the Constitutional Court - setting aside its restrictive standing requirements and lengthy adjudication times - is widely recognised to already be politically captured.

Moreover, the new law criminalises publication of false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public, or that alarm or agitate that public, punishable by up to five years in prison. It also criminalises interference with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order punishable by up to eight years in prison. These new crimes, together with a heavily curtailed court system and the government’s sweeping new powers, will necessarily have chilling and other adverse effects on an already restricted media freedom, and on all voices critical of the government, including civil society organisations.

For a more detailed analysis of the law, see the assessment made by Hungarian expert organisations, including FIDH’s member organisation in Hungary, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee:

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