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Von der Leyen criticises Hungary, but fails to mention it

  • Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen (here shaking hands before the coronavirus outbreak) have sought to ease tensions between the EU executive and Hungary (Photo: European Commission)

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned member state governments on Tuesday (31 March) not to weaken fundamental rights and democratic values in their fight against the coronavirus.

But the commission chief did not name Hungary in her statement, where on Monday prime minister Viktor Orban's two-thirds majority in parliament granted his government indefinite and sweeping emergency powers.

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Von der Leyen said that even in challenging times the EU's founding values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights should be defended.

She conceded governments need to have the necessary tools to act rapidly and protect citizens, referring to the state of emergency that had been introduced in some 15 EU countries and other extra measures capitals have taken.

"It is of outmost [sic] importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the treaties," the EU executive president wrote.

In a direct reference to the measures adopted in Hungary, von der Leyen wrote: "Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect of freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times. Now, it is more important than ever that journalists are able to do their job freely and precisely, so as to counter disinformation and to ensure that our citizens have access to crucial information."

The new emergency measures in Hungary include possible jail terms for publishing news deemed by the government fake or distorted, sparking concerns over media freedom in the country.

Hungary already ranks the lowest among EU members in the world press freedom index of the Reporters Without Borders organisation.

Von der Leyen insisted any measure must be limited, proportionate, and should not be indefinite, while governments must be subject to scrutiny.

The time limit for the new measures in Hungary lasts until the parliament decides to end them. But two-thirds of the assembly is dominated by Orban-loyal MPs, granting him control over any termination date.

The EU commission will "closely monitor, in the spirit of cooperation," the application of emergency measures in all member states, the statement adds.

With regards to Hungary, commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said that the executive will "analyse the final law" and monitor its application.

An EU official said that one of the key benchmarks to look at will be if the Orban government gives back the emergency powers once the crisis has subsided.

However, Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund warned that even if the Orban government retracts the emergency measures, it does not make the system it had built before the crisis democratic.

The EU commissioners will meanwhile have a discussion on emergency measures taken by EU countries on Wednesday.

Hungarian government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, who gained notoriety in Brussels after live tweeting from a closed door session of EU ministers seized the opportunity of the commission's statement omitting Hungary, and retorted by saying that the new measures are in line with EU treaties.

Strained relations

Von der Leyen's statement comes after justice commissioner Didier Reynders on Monday already named Hungary as the focus of the commission's efforts to hold EU rules, amid a flurry of emergency measures.

Von der Leyen sought "a fresh start" at the start of her mandate with Hungary, and other central European countries, whose governments have come under EU scrutiny over democracy and rule of law.

Orban backed her nomination last June as head of the commission at the expense of Manfred Weber, the official candidate of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), where they all belong.

The EU probe into Hungary's backsliding on democracy, the so-called Article 7 procedure is on a forced break as council meetings of EU ministers cannot be official unless are they take place physically.

MEPs have also criticised Hungary's move and called for the commission to act.

Socialist group leader Iratxe Garcia said there is "no excuse for an indefinite lockdown of democracy". Liberal Renew leader Dacian Ciolos called the Hungarian measures a "red alert for liberal democracy in Europe and beyond.

A group of more than a dozen MEPs from the largest political groups signed a petition calling for the protection of democracy in the coronavirus crisis, and have called for member states and the commission to act.

"Ursula von der Leyen has to recognise the seriousness of the situation and act," MEP Daniel Freund said, calling for the freezing of EU funds to Hungary and for the ruling Fidesz party to be finally kicked out of EPP.

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