The European Union’s commissioner responsible for upholding the bloc's values and transparency has expressed deep concern over the situation in Hungary, where right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban was granted sweeping powers under a package of emergency measures aimed at fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
EU Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova told EU lawmakers on May 14 that as countries begin to ease pandemic lockdowns, “the general states of emergency with exceptional powers granted to governments should gradually be removed or replaced by more targeted and less intrusive measures.”
She made the statement during a debate at the European Parliament in Brussels on the rule of law in Hungary amid a spate of detentions in the EU member under the emergency legislation, which introduced potential prison sentences for people who spread false information about the outbreak.
Hungary's parliament, where Orban's Fidesz party holds a comfortable majority, approved legislation on March 30 giving him the right to rule by decree indefinitely.
The package of measures was criticized for lacking a so-called sunset clause to give a clear time limit to the state of emergency.
Jourova said that “the case of Hungary raises particular concerns” and that “on a daily basis, we are assessing whether we can take legal action.”
Orban's chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, told a briefing in Budapest on May 14 that the government could end emergency powers in late June, depending on the evolution of the pandemic.
The May 14 debate in Brussels did not result in binding measures but is likely to further deepen a conflict between the Orban government and the European parliament.
Hungarian police said that 86 criminal investigations into scaremongering have been launched since the emergency legislation was adopted by parliament on March 30.
On May 13, a member of the Momentum opposition party was detained in southern Hungary after posting a message on social media about the government's decision to make hospital beds available for coronavirus patients by throwing out non-COVID-19 patients.
On May 12, a 64-year-old man in the northeastern city of Gyula was held for hours for allegedly "publishing false facts on a social-media site," police said in a statement.
Hungary had no representative at the debate after Orban declined the invitation to attend in person and proposed to send Justice Minister Judit Varga instead -- a move rejected by Brussels. Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs branded the debate a "witch hunt, a show trial."
The European Parliament last month adopted a statement saying Hungary's measures are "incompatible with European values."
The center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament’s biggest grouping, suspended Fidesz from its ranks in March 2019 over concerns over the rule-of-law backsliding in Hungary as well as attacks against the European Commission.
The suspension was extended indefinitely in February, even before the Hungarian lawmakers' move to grant Orban sweeping powers.
Hungary's emergency law also prompted "particular" concern from European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen last month.
While saying EU countries may need extraordinary measures to fight the pandemic, she added: "I am concerned that certain measures go too far -- and I'm particularly concerned with the situation in Hungary."