Surrendering to autocracy in the fight against COVID-19, Hungary poisons European ideals

The EU must swiftly propose and adopt sanctions against the latest ‘democratic backsliding’ by the Hungarian government, say leading European politicians, media and civil society leaders in an open letter whose signatories include former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, and EURACTIV founder Christophe Leclercq.

We Europeans need to fight two viruses, simultaneously and equally vehemently: COVID-19, attacking our bodies, and yet another infection targeting our ideals and democracies.

On March 30, 2020, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a text that allows the government to suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from provisions enshrined in the existing ones and implement additional extraordinary measures by decree for a practically unlimited period of time, with new limitations on media and information.

Such a concentration of power is unprecedented in the European Union. It does not serve the fight against Covid-19 or its economic consequences; instead, it opens the door to all types of abuses, with both public and private assets now at the mercy of an executive that is largely unaccountable. It is the culmination of Hungary’s 10-year drift towards authoritarianism, and it is dangerous.

Indeed, it is with great concern that we observed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán embark his country on a track diverging from European norms and values over the last decade. This power-grab in response to Covid-19 is just a new and alarming chapter in a long process of democratic backsliding.

Political opposition, social dialogue, and free speech have increasingly been silenced, with various universities, cultural hubs, business groups and civil society organisations suffering the burden of Mr. Orbàn’s authoritative rule.

The European Parliament has twice analysed and condemned this undemocratic drift with the Tavares and Sargentini reports in 2013 and 2018 respectively.

For those who believe in the values of rule of law and democratic government, inaction is not an option. The Union risks discrediting all its efforts to foster democratic processes, the rule of law, transparency, solidarity, and social dialogue not only in all Member States but amongst candidate countries as well.

To face this generation-defining pandemic, all EU countries must adopt difficult measures that, to some extent, limit their citizens’ civil rights. However, these measures should remain proportionate and justified, and temporary in nature.

Enabling the rule by government decrees for a practically unlimited time, is a severe violation of EU Treaties, of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and of the European Convention on Human Rights.

That is why, denouncing and sanctioning Mr. Orbán’s attack on democracy is more crucial today than ever.

We therefore call on all stakeholders – European institutions, national institutions and governments, citizens, civil society, and the media – to be as vigilant as they can. It is time for widespread mobilisation and collective action.

We call on national media to dedicate news segments to the Hungarian situation, daily if needs be. We also ask them to grant Hungarian citizens, as European citizens, free access to their content as a source of pluralistic and independent information.

We call on the Commission, as guardian of the Treaties, to urgently react and propose sanctions proportional to the seriousness of such an unacceptable violation of European rules and values.

The European Parliament and the Council should adopt these sanctions without delay.

Covid-19 must and will be beaten thanks to democratic processes, transparent action, and pluralistic information. It is by defending these values that we will mobilise the European population at large and ensure our common road to recovery enjoys widespread support.

We finally call on all European citizens to look at what is happening in Hungary not as an externality but as a fundamental threat to our common interest.

It is time for all of us to unite in this fight. What is at stake is not only our health, but our shared ideals, and the survival of our Union and democracies.

The author: Michel DEURINCK

Michel Deurinck, born in Brussels in 1950, started his career in the Belgian civil service, dedicating over 30 years to public service. Upon retirement, he pursued his passion for journalism. Transitioning into this new field, he quickly gained recognition for his insightful reporting on politics and culture. Deurinck's balanced and thoughtful approach to journalism has made him a respected figure in Belgian media.

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