5th Mar 2024

Hungary and Poland in spotlight for lockdown moves

  • Commissioner Didier Reynders (r) with Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga (r) at a previous council meeting (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The EU's justice commissioner Didier Reynders told MEPs on Thursday (23 April) that the bloc's executive is concerned about both emergency measures in Hungary, and the non-postponement of the upcoming presidential election in Poland.

However, the commissioner did not unveil any action the executive might take to follow up on their concerns.

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"Based on the [commission's] preliminary findings the Hungarian legislation regulating the state of danger raises particular concerns," he told the European parliament's civil liberties committee.

"The emergency powers granted appear to be more extensive then in other member states considering the combined effect of broadly defined powers and the absence of a clear time limit," Reynders added.

"The criminalisation of stating or spreading false information related to the crisis is not clearly defined and accompanied by strict sanctions, it raises concerns regarding legal certainty and freedom of expression," he said.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's two-thirds majority in the Budapest parliament last month granted sweeping powers to his government.

It allows the Budapest government to suspend enforcement of certain laws, and not only ones related to the crisis. It also imposes jail terms for those disseminating news deemed untrue or distorted.

Orban allies argued the new powers can be revoked anytime by the parliament, but the government enjoys a two-thirds majority in the parliament, making it their prerogative alone to end the emergency.

Reynders said the commission has been monitoring emergency measures in all EU countries - but singled out Hungary and Poland.

He said the commission will closely scrutinise how the measures are applied, and the commission will see "if there is some reason to act", including launching a probe, the so-called infringement procedures.

Hungarian MEP from opposition party Momentum, Anna Donath, said "monitoring is not enough, we need actions".

MEP Balazs Hidveghi, from Orban's Fidesz party, retorted by saying that the measures taken are in line with the country's constitution.

"It is disappointing to see that the political left has used this extraordinary situation to continue with its partisan politics and spread false information, outright lies about Hungary," he said.

Over a dozen parties in Fidesz's political family, the European People's Party (EPP) have asked group leader Manfred Weber to suspend Fidesz MEPs from their EPP group positions, in line with the party's own suspension of the membership of the Hungarian ruling party last year.

However, those sensitive discussions and decisions cannot take place online, so any movement on that will have to come after lockdowns are eased.

Polish presidential poll

Reynders has also voiced concern over the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government plans to go ahead with the 10 May presidential elections via postal ballot, despite the pandemic.

PiS-ally and incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, who has been the only candidate able to effectively campaign, is expected to win big, although turnout may be very low.

Reynders raised concerns over the practical organisation of the poll, the chances of a fair campaign, and said that changes to the electoral law should not happen - as per the standards of the Council of Europe watchdog - close to election day.

Reynders also told MEPs the commission will ask the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to impose fines on Poland if the government does not comply with suspending the new disciplinary chamber of the supreme court, which the ECJ had ordered Warsaw to do so.

Article 7 on hold

The Warsaw and Budapest governments are already under the EU's so-called Article 7 sanctions procedure over concerns of breaching EU rules and values.

However, the procedures have been put on hold in the council of EU affairs ministers as sensitive political discussions are difficult to conduct online, and meetings can only qualify as formal in person.

"For the time being, it is not possible to hold a formal council meeting," Croatia's EU ambassador Irena Andrassy, whose country hold the bloc's rotating presidency, told MEPs.

Reynders said that the commission is scrutinising extraordinary measures in all member states in terms of rule of law, their effects on fundamental rights, and their impact on implementing EU law.

He said the the commission "will use all tools their disposal within the remit of its competence to ensure measures respect fundamental rights and values".

Reynders told MEPs that an "overwhelming number state of emergency or granted special powers to government" with a varying level of oversight by the parliament and other institutions.

The commissioner added that the most common fundamental rights restricted by the measures are: freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom to conduct business, freedom of expression, respect of privacy and protection of personal data.

He said measures need to be scaled back when the health crisis abates, adding "we must come back to normal checks and balances, and citizens must benefit fully from their rights".

The commission will publish the first annual rule of law report in September, checking the practices in all EU countries.

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