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31st Oct 2020

Jourova: Ease emergency powers - especially Hungary

  • Commission vce-president Vera Jourova told MEPs that more targeted and less intrusive measures could replace various government's states of emergency (Photo: European Commission)

EU Commission vice-president Vera Jourova on Thursday (14 May) urged member states, particularly Hungary, to roll back political emergency measures, as lockdown restrictions are relaxed around Europe.

Jourova told MEPs in a debate on Hungary that while the EU executive will not take legal action against the government of prime minister Viktor Orban yet over extraordinary powers the parliament granted him in March, but is "monitoring very closely" developments.

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"This new phase means that the general states of emergency with exceptional powers granted to governments should gradually be removed, or replaced by more targeted and less intrusive measures," Jourova, who is in charge of EU values and transparency, said.

"The European commission will be very vigilant on how emergency measures affecting fundamental rights, rule of law and democratic values are phased out in member states,"

"This is even more important for Hungary given the lack of a clear time limit for the state of danger," she said.

Jourova said the emergency powers in Hungary "raises particular concerns".

"The emergency powers granted appear more extensive than in other member states considering the combined effect of broadly defined power and the absence of a clear time limit," the Czech politician said.

Jourova added that the criminalisation of stating and spending false information related to the crisis is not clearly defined and is accompanied by strict sanctions raises "potential concerns regarding legal certainty and may have chilling effect on freedom of expression".

Meanwhile, Orban's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, told a briefing in Budapest, also on Thursday, that the government could end emergency powers in late June, depending on the evolution of the pandemic.

In the European parliament, MEP Andor Deli from Orban's Fidesz party, said the debate reminded him of a "show trial".

"It seems there are factions on the leftist-liberal side which cannot afford not to attack Hungary again and again on a monthly basis," he said - without addressing the specific concerns over the emergency powers.

"It is much easier to organise empty ideological debates, than to talk about the substance and the facts and matters which truly interests citizens in the member states," Deli added, speaking on behalf of the centre-right European People's Party where Fidesz's membership is suspended.

Deli argued the parliament president David Sassoli had not helped the participation of the Hungarian government in the debate.

After Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga signalled her wish to participate, Sassoli in a letter told Orban that only heads of state and government can participate, citing an "established practice". Orban declined.

On Thursday, several MEPs called on the commission and the council of member states to act, and suspend EU payments to Hungary unless rule of law is respected.

The sanctions probe, Article 7, in the council has been at a deadlock before the pandemic broke out, but the lockdowns have prevented personal meetings where such sensitive political issues can be discussed.

'Scaremongering' arrests

In the meantime, Hungarian police said that 86 domestic criminal investigations into scaremongering have been launched since the emergency legislation was adopted, Reuters reported.

On Wednesday, a member of the Momentum opposition party was detained after posting a message on Facebook about the government's decision to make hospital beds available for coronavirus patients by throwing out non-Covid-19 patients.

A day earlier another man was arrested for a few hours for criticising the government in a Facebook post.

During the pandemic, the Hungarian parliament, with a two-thirds Fidesz majority, adopted a statement rejecting the Istanbul convention on combatting violence against women, and ended legal recognition of transgender people.

"Everything to combat the virus looks more like combatting opposition parties, municipalities, journalists, civil society," MEP Birgit Sippel warned on Thursday.

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