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Hungary’s Authoritarian Takeover Puts European Union at Risk

COVID-19 Is Not an Opportunity to Shelve Democracy

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, center, his deputy Zsolt Semjen and other government members and MPs of the governing Fidesz party vote on a draft law concerning extraordinary measures during the plenary session of Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, March 30, 2020.  © 2020 Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP Images

On Monday, under the pretext of addressing the COVID-19 public health emergency, Hungary's parliament gave green light to the Orban-led government to rule with unlimited power for an indefinite time. Prime Minister Viktor Orban can now suspend any existing law and implement others by decree, without parliamentary or judicial scrutiny. Elections have been suspended.

The law allows for new criminal penalties of five years in prison for publishing vaguely defined “false” or “distorted” facts – another blow to media freedom in the country. With this law, Hungary becomes the first country in the European Union to virtually abolish all democratic checks-and-balances.

How has it come to this? In the past 10 years, the government has spared no efforts to curb judicial independence, restrict civil society activities, and gain near full control over the media. Having repeatedly failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation, EU institutions risk making the same mistake again.

Even since the European Parliament in September 2018 triggered Article 7 – the mechanism dealing with EU governments putting EU’s values at risk – EU states have dragged their feet instead of ramping up pressure. Article 7 is not the problem – it’s that EU member states and the Commission have not put their weight behind the procedure.

The European Commission should fully back Article 7 proceedings and launch urgent actions to challenge the emergency law before the EU Court of Justice. EU leaders, including German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron, should bring Article 7 procedures to the next level.

That alone won’t be enough, though. Cutting access to certain EU funds and political isolation would hit Orban where it hurts. A mechanism to cut or redirect EU funding that could be misused due to the democratic deficit is desperately needed, provided it does not hurt the well-being and livelihoods of ordinary Hungarians. Increased scrutiny on the use of EU funding should start as soon as possible.

Orban’s government has crossed too many lines and turned his country into the EU’s first non-democracy. His peers need to make it clear they disavow these policies that have no place in the European club and refrain from rolling out the red carpet to their authors. It’s also high time the European People’s Party expelled Orban’s party, Fidesz, for flagrant breaches of its rules and values.

Hungary’s new law is a carte-blanche for authoritarianism. If Europe doesn’t stand up for democracy and rule of law in Hungary now, the damage will be felt across the continent.

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