From U.S. Republicans to European Greens, politicians far and wide condemned Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s move to rule by decree — but not leaders of the political family that suspended him last year.
While reaction piled up from around the world following the Hungarian parliament’s decision to hand broad powers to Orbán’s government to handle the coronavirus crisis without an end date, the top officials in the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) were conspicuously silent.
Orbán’s move brought back to the surface deep divisions within Europe’s most powerful political alliance — between national member parties who want to kick out the self-declared champion of “illiberal democracy,” those who want to keep him in, and those who think he just wants a fight and is best ignored.
The EPP suspended Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party last March over concerns about the rule of law in Hungary and his clashes with EU institutions on migration and other issues. But Fidesz has remained a member of the EPP group in the European Parliament and the EPP has been unable to agree on any further steps. That seems unlikely to change despite the fresh torrent of criticism directed at Fidesz.
Some 24 hours after Monday’s Hungarian parliament vote, EPP President Donald Tusk broke his silence with a tweet that avoided condemning Fidesz and suggested those concerned about democracy during the coronavirus crisis should look beyond Budapest.
Under new Hungarian law, individuals who publicize untrue or distorted facts could face several years in jail.
“This is a critical moment for our democracy, not only for each country but for Europe as a whole. This is why we have to be very precise and very transparent when we’re assessing the state of emergency. It’s really important to know every detail, not only in Hungary,” Tusk said as part of a series of tweets about the coronavirus crisis.
The brief statement by the former European Council president reflected a long-running EPP strategy of pointing to other governments with rule-of-law problems when asked about Fidesz.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament and an avid Twitter user, made no comment at all on the Hungarian measures.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, the EPP group’s Twitter account issued a statement that appeared critical of Orbán’s move but did not name him, his party or his country. “A virus will not change our values. Emergency measures can require the unusual curtailing of civil liberties. But this must always be limited in time, restricted to what is absolutely necessary, transparent and proportionate,” the group tweeted.
Under the new Hungarian law, individuals who publicize what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in jail. No by-elections can be held while the legislation remains in force, and Orbán’s government will be able to suspend the enforcement of certain laws. The new rules can only be lifted with a two-thirds vote of the parliament and a presidential signature.
The Hungarian government has dismissed concerns about the law, arguing it is proportionate to the challenges the country faces and noting that there is a mechanism to rescind it.
“My suggestion to everyone: read the law!” MEP Tamás Deutsch, a founding member of Fidesz, told POLITICO, declaring that there was no basis in the text for the widespread “lies” and “exaggerations” about it.
“This law does nothing to weaken democracy,” he said.
But politicians across Europe swiftly weighed in to denounce the measure. Soon after it was passed, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wrote that “after what Orbán has done today, the European Union MUST act and make him change his mind. Or, simply, expel Hungary from the Union.” (There is no formal mechanism for expelling a member country from the EU.)
‘Memories from dark periods’
Renzi, a former leader of Italy’s center left, is a political opponent of the EPP. But there was also plenty of criticism of Orbán from prominent figures in national member parties of the EPP itself.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt said that “this brings back memories from dark periods in the history of Europe.”
Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a candidate to lead Germany’s governing Christian Democrats (CDU), tweeted that Orbán’s state of emergency law “effectively eliminates opposition” and is “a breach of basic principles” that the EU cannot accept.
“The @EU_Commission has to act immediately,” Röttgen added. “The EU26, including #Germany, have to demonstrate that they will not tolerate this abuse of the #Corona-crisis.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is also a prominent CDU figure, didn’t mention Hungary by name but said on Tuesday that “any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely.”
The outrage even went beyond EU borders. “It is shameful that PM Viktor Orbán is exploiting the #coronavirus pandemic to seize dictatorial powers,” U.S. Congressman Michael McCaul, the leading Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said. Eliot Engel, the committee’s Democratic chair, called the new legislation a “power grab.”
In the European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats group, the centrist Renew Europe group and the Greens all issued statements expressing concern about the newly-approved legislation, as did some national officials, including German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth, a Social Democrat.
Disapproval of the legislation also came from a bloc of northern European EPP parties that has long felt uncomfortable with Fidesz’s membership of the alliance.
“Orbán has created an authoritarian regime,” said Aura Salla, who chairs the party council of Finland’s National Coalition Party.
“None of these powers he has taken to himself are needed to fight corona,” she told POLITICO, adding that “in the EU, free parliamentary democracy is one of the core values and we cannot look the other way. The EU must react, we should freeze EU funding for Hungary.”
“I cannot speak on behalf of the EPP Party but our party … wanted to let them go long time ago and now the EPP should take the final decision,” she said.
But other EPP figures argued that fanning the flames with Orbán would only benefit the Hungarian leader at a time when the EU is grappling with an unprecedented health and economic crisis.
“The priority is the coronavirus not Viktor Orbán,” said one EPP insider, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Right now I believe people don’t care about Orbán, they care about the coronavirus.”
The insider said Orbán’s emergency law was “worrisome.” But “Orbán has an excuse and he is waiting for us to say something,” he said. “It’s the only thing he cares about… If we react, we make his day. If we react, we play his game.”