Sunday

5th Jul 2020

Opinion

Budapest to EU: 'Sorry seems to be the hardest word'

  • Judit Varga, Hungarian justice minister: 'The extraordinary governance structure chosen by Hungary served its purpose and served it well' (Photo: Hungarian government)

Europe breathes again. It seems that the darkest days of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic are coming to an end.

Hungary has also successfully completed the first phase of the fight against the coronavirus. We have managed so far to prevent the pandemic from reaching tragic proportions similar to some member states.

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This has been possible because the Hungarian government took all the necessary measures in due time and could rely on the sacrifice and discipline of the Hungarian citizens. A state of danger was declared seven days after the first infection was confirmed in Hungary.

Public events were suspended on the seventh day and schools were closed on the twelfth day after the first case of coronavirus in Hungary.

The state of danger – declared by the government as of 11 March and confirmed by parliament through its Act of 30 March – provided a legal framework that allowed quick and effective response.

Without the state of danger, none of the necessary measures could have been taken on time and some of the measures that saved lives couldn't have been taken at all.

As the pandemic situation is being stabilised, a new phase begins in our defence efforts. Movement restrictions will be gradually lifted both internally and externally.

Some public events can now be held with careful social distancing. Economy and commerce can gradually restart with the necessary precautions. Schools will be given more flexibility to organise personal consultations in small groups if necessary.

The opening is phased-in taking into account regional specifics: Budapest, the capital usually follows measures adopted in the rest of the country with a two-week delay.

The extraordinary governance structure chosen by Hungary served its purpose and served it well. On 26 May, the government submitted a draft law to the parliament that calls for the termination of the state of danger and repeals the law of 30 March 2020.

'Hysteria'

Hungary has been facing an unprecedented, coordinated political campaign and hysteria for months in relation to the introduction of the state of danger.

Let's not forget that the Hungarian government was attacked during the most difficult period in the fight against the pandemic, and the attacks questioned the measures it has taken and undermined the legitimacy of its decisions.

To borrow the words of a famous song by Sir Elton John, it was a sad situation and was getting more and more absurd.

The fake news that the Hungarian parliament was shut down became viral and even the Speaker of the National Assembly could not convince Western opinion makers otherwise.

Suddenly, it was in Hungary where fundamental rights were in danger and not in countries where the application of the European Convention on Human Rights was suspended.

Curiously, it was the Hungarian state of danger, a special legal order regulated by our constitution, that was portrayed as an extra-constitutional situation and not the ad-hoc solutions adopted in some member states through special legislation or constitutional bricolage.

The extraordinary measures introduced in Hungary are not unique in a European comparison – with the exception of being the only ones to grant additional prerogatives to the parliament compared to the constitutional framework.

To support this claim, we have prepared a thorough international comparative analysis, which we have submitted to the Commission and which is accessible on the Hungarian government's website.

Even though the commission was quick to voice its particular concerns about Hungary, it is yet to make its own comparative analysis public, which has been promised so many times, so that we can share our knowledge in a fair and open constitutional dialogue.

As in the song, I repeatedly asked myself the question: "What I got to do to be heard?"

The European Parliament organised a plenary debate on the conformity of exceptional measures taken by Hungary in relation with the COVID-19 pandemic with European standards. It seemed like a perfect occasion to set the record straight and present the facts and the law as we see it.

Of course, Hungary was initially not invited.

Mark my words: it did not occur to the organisers of a parliamentary debate about Hungary to invite the Member State concerned.

Only on my initiative and after my repeated requests, did the president of the European Parliament make the peculiar decision to invite the prime minister, even though it was well known that he could not attend, and to reject the designated representative and cabinet minister of a member state who was able and willing to be present.

How can an institution call itself a parliament, where it is not evident to listen to the other party?

With the submission of the draft law repealing the act prolonging the state of danger, it must be clear for everyone that measures taken under the state of danger are not only necessary, proportionate and successful but also temporary – and have always been intended as such.

Hungary will be among the first EU member states to terminate the special legal order.

"What do I say when it's all over?" - a very pertinent question for all the critiques of the exceptional measures taken by the Hungarian government.

In an ideal world, Hungary would be entitled to an apology. But we all know that sorry seems to be the hardest word.

Author bio

Judit Varga is justice minister in the government of Viktor Orban in Budapest.

Disclaimer

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

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