Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?

By Dorottya Kósa

Over the past few days, my international friends have been bombarding me with questions concerning the new emergency law in my home country, Hungary. Receiving messages full of worries and having to pick up the phone to answer questions about the collapse of democracy in Hungary encouraged me to write this article. I hope to clarify certain things about the new legal realities and how it in fact did not change Hungary’s political powers.

Crash course on the legal framework of Hungary

Article No. 53 (State of Danger) of the Fundamental Law – the Constitution of Hungary – covers special legal orders for extreme circumstances such as a national crisis or a state of emergency. In a state of danger the government has the power to adopt means to suspend the application of certain acts, deviate from them, and take extraordinary measures. [1] As Article No. 53 declares, the means shall remain in force only for fifteen days, but the National Assembly can extend their power by voting every second week. The fourth paragraph pronounces that “upon the termination of the state in danger, such decrees of the Government shall cease to have effect.”

The definition of the state of danger is specified in Act No. CXXVIII of 2011, which focuses on disaster management. Based on this Act and on the Fundamental Law of Hungary, the governing party, Fidesz, declared the state of danger in the current situation of global pandemic. [2] Shortly after, on 30 March 2020, the Hungarian parliament with 138 votes for, and 53 against had passed the bill on the Coronavirus Protection Act (2020.évi XII. törvény a koronavírus elleni védekezésről). [3]

Absolute power or powerful absolute

The new law allows the government to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, until the state of emergency is over. [4] According to the Coronavirus Act, the Government may exercise its powers to the extent necessary and proportionate to prevent, treat, eradicate the epidemic and to prevent or eliminate its harmful effects. [5] There were immediate accusations of abuse of power by many international media channels, as they feared the destruction of democratic values in Hungary.

However, putting on our “reality check glasses,” not much has changed in Hungarian politics with the passing of the Coronavirus Act other than at the theoretical level. Viktor Orbán’s party has two-thirds of the seats in parliament since 2010. Fidesz has the majority of votes and the power to change and construct (or deconstruct) the legal system in their favor. [6] Even without the new law that gives Orbán unprecedented emergency powers, the Fidesz-dominated parliament could theoretically extend the state of danger as long as they wish.

The trap is ready

On 31 March 2020, just one day after the two-thirds passed the Coronavirus Act, Viktor Orbán said in a Facebook video that “the opposition parties did not vote for the state of danger’s prolongation. Our boat got a leak.” What he meant by the video message is that the opposition does not take the pandemic situation seriously enough and would endanger the health and safety of Hungarian citizens by voting against the Corona Act. However, the opposition voted against the bill because they wanted it to have a defined time period.

Since Fidesz already had the power of majority, this Corona Act might just be another populist trick for the approaching national elections. Framing the opposition as the ‘other’ that is counterproductive in times of crisis fits perfectly within the party’s rhetoric. Hence, this pandemic could be another opportunity for Orbán to stay in power and heighten populist narratives of strong leadership. As a global economic crisis emerges, the pandemic can cause governing regimes to lose large parts of their voting bases. [7] However, if ruling parties handle the corona crisis well, they might gain even more supporters than before.

Gábor Török, a Hungarian political scientist, said he would not be surprised if Fidesz would propose an early national election right after the pandemic crisis. He suspects a trap set for the opposition – which they directly walked into. [8] Yet Fidesz already has a well-established ground with its two-third majority and they did not really need the new Coronavirus Act to stay in power. Were all these efforts only to fool the opposition while generating international outrage and risking aid restrictions from the European Union?

Pushing the limits

The passing of the Coronavirus Act resulted in center-right political leaders asking Donald Tusk to expel Fidesz from the European People’s Party (EPP). [9] This happened before, for instance during last year’s European Parliamentary elections, when the EPP was reluctant to include Orbán’s party after controversial debates from member parties. However, the EPP needed the Hungarian votes and knew Fidesz supporters will be active and participate in forming the future of the EU. [10]

The EU is keeping a close eye on Hungarian politics since the report of Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini expressing concerns regarding the government’s abuse of migrants, restrictions on press freedom, corruption and conflicts of interest, and “stereotypical attitudes” towards women. [11] Sargentini called for urgent measures evoking Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union that permits the EU to suspend certain rights of a member state. However, the article does not contain any information on possible mechanisms to expel a member. Already two years had passed since the process initiated, but no sanctions were imposed so far. Moreover, Fidesz used the charges of the EU to build and strengthen their nationalist, Eurosceptic narratives.

On 2 April 2020, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed her concerns regarding the developments in Hungary saying that Orbán’s measures went too far. [12] Yet once again there is no real action taken, and the issue stays on the rhetoric level. Currently, it looks like the Hungarian government is winning this battle: It looks like the EU is unlikely to impose punitive measures on Orbán, Fidesz, or Hungary. [13]

To sum it up

Viktor Orbán managed to convert the communist Hungary into a vibrant democracy, only to then transform it into a semi-autocratic member state of the European Union under only one political party’s ruling. Since Fidesz has the majority of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament, it has all the power with or without the Corona Act. Warning words of European leaders will not scare Viktor Orbán. In fact, they work counterproductively, since they provide the Hungarian Prime Minister with new narratives about the incompetence of the EU. You could say that Orbán has won because of the European response. It is likely the Hungarian government will continue strengthening its grip on power by outplaying and weakening the national opposition, thereby further challenging the democratic stability and the credibility of the European Union.

Picture: Pedro Antunes, Flickr

Sources: 

[1] “The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).”

[2] “Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

[3] Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence, “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

[4] “Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/

[5] “2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről,” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020, http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

[6] “Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

[7] Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz, “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus,” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

[8] “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner,” mandiner.hu, accessed April 5, 2020, https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_aorszagot.

[9] Sarantis Michalopoulos, “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

[10] “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” Hungary Today (blog), May 27, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

[11] Alice Cuddy, “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary,” euronews, September 12, 2018, https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-Article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

[12] “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 3, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

[13] “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” Hungary Today (blog), September 19, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

Bibliography:

“2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről.” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020. http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

“Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence. “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

Carlsson-Szlezak, Philipp, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz. “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus.” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

Cuddy, Alice. “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary.” euronews, September 12, 2018. https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

Hungary Today. “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” May 27, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

Hungary Today. “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” September 19, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

“Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

“Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/.

Michalopoulos, Sarantis. “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP.” Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

“The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).” Ministry of Justice, 2017. https://www.kormany.hu/download/f/3e/61000/TheFundamentalLawofHungary_20180629_FIN.pdf.

mandiner.hu. “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner.” Accessed April 5, 2020. https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_az_orszagot.

http://www.euractiv.com. “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” April 3, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

The European Parliament Triggers Article 7 against the Hungarian Government

By Karin Kämmerling

On September 12, the European Parliament voted on the triggering of Article 7 measures against Hungary. With 448 votes in favor of the motion, 197 against and 48 abstentions the required majority was achieved[1]. Now, the Council of the European Union has to approve the vote unanimously in order to launch possible sanctions. The Hungarian government, accused of silencing critical media, targeting academics and NGOs as well as removing independent judges, said the decision was an insult to the Hungarian nation and people[2].

What is the Article 7 about?

Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union states that the EU can take measures in case “there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2“[3]. These include “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”[4]. Members of the European Parliament must support the resolution by two thirds in order to launch the Article 7 procedure as it happened last month in Strasbourg in the case of Hungary. With this vote, it is now possible for the Council of the European Union to make demands to the Hungarian government in order to improve the situation and even launch punitive measures if the requirements are not fulfilled. Possible sanctions may be a harder access to EU funding and can even lead to the loss of voting rights in the EU institutions. Continue reading “The European Parliament Triggers Article 7 against the Hungarian Government”