Monday

6th Apr 2020

Opinion

Renew MEPs raise alarm on coronavirus civil liberties

  • The Hungarian government of Viktor Orban has cynically used the public health crisis to finish its project of eliminating democracy in the country - and he's not the only one (Photo: European Parliament)

At this hour, the European Union is facing its biggest test ever. The fight to overcome the corona crisis demands our common determination.

As the conditions in hospitals become increasingly precarious and the death toll rises, our thoughts are with the doctors, nurses, patients and their families.

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This crisis has triggered a wave of solidarity among Europeans.

People doing grocery shopping for their elderly neighbours, streets erupting in applause for health care staff and front line workers, and university students giving free online courses to high school kids.

It shows that by lending a helping hand to each other, we can overcome this.

Unfortunately, some see in this crisis a window of opportunity for more sinister plans. Disinformation is flooding our social media, by outside forces aiming to scare and divide us.

We also witness an attempt by forces within Europe to do away with checks and balances and fundamental rights.

It goes without saying that this is an exceptional situation, that requires unorthodox measures. However, such unorthodox measures should be of a temporary nature, limited to what is absolutely necessary, and fully in line with fundamental rights and our existing rules.

The state of emergency is not something to be invoked frivolously. When one day the corona nightmare is over, we should not wake up in an authoritarian state where individual freedoms have dwindled.

The Hungarian government cynically uses the public health crisis to finish its project of eliminating democracy in the country.

It wants an indefinite state of emergency, suspend laws and impose up to five years of imprisonment for those media refusing to be part of the government propaganda machine.

Its entry ban based on nationality, also cutting off residents from their homes and families, is thinly-veiled discrimination, utterly unrelated to the virus.

Viruses don't recognise nationality, borders, skin colour or religion.

However, it follows from Orban's disinformation that migrants are to blame for the coronavirus.

Not just Hungary

Other governments, in Latvia, Romania and Estonia for example, want to seize this opportunity and break free from their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In several countries, for example Belgium, Germany, Poland and the UK use anonymised data of mobile phone users to track their movements.

But it is just a small, but tempting, step to the Singaporean system, that tracks and monitors individual citizens via their phones.

The antidote to this virus can never be to kill our very European soul: the respect for democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights.

Quite to the contrary: safeguarding the rights of our citizens is ever more important in times of crisis.

The European Convention on Human Rights was never meant for fair weather circumstances, but it was meant to serve as a bastion to protect democratic rule of law and fundamental rights against attacks.

Those rights, like the right to health, economic and social rights, and civil and political freedoms, are all very relevant in the present context.

Rights are there to protect the vulnerable, such as children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, the homeless or refugees.

Or indeed truck drivers stuck in a traffic jam at the Polish border for three days in deplorable conditions, people in precarious jobs who cannot afford sick leave, or journalists who do a vital jobs of keeping us informed.

In these times of crisis, our citizens demand strong leadership, and rightfully so.

However, that should never be misinterpreted as a demand for authoritarianism or doing away with European values.

This crisis should not be exploited to destroy the foundations on which our Europe was built, exactly 70 years ago this year: the Schumann Declaration and the European Convention on Human Rights.

A Europe of cooperation, democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights. Europe has gone through very rough times before.

But we always emerged from a crisis stronger than before. If we protect our society, our way of life, with determination, solidarity and unity.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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