Agnes Zsofia MAGYAR (senior research fellow, Danube Institute)
At the end of March, two stunning news appeared about Hungary in the international media. One said that the Parliament had been suspended, the other claimed that the government had voted itself extraordinary powers and could henceforth govern freely by decrees. The first soon turned out to be fake news, as the Hungarian Parliament met incessantly even during the epidemic. The second was also false, as the government's authorization for the emergency was in force only until the danger existed. As the latter ended, it was revoked by the Parliament, with a 100% majority. So those who systematically shouted dictatorships about Hungary were very disappointed.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, the social democratic Prime Minister has put forward a proposal to allow the government to take emergency measures for three months without parliamentary approval, while in Denmark the measures taken under Covid-19 went beyond previous counter-terrorism measures. While in Hungary Covid-19 tests were only recommended for participation during the official statistical data collection, in Denmark citizens who refused the coronavirus test or otherwise disobeyed the health authorities were heavily penalized.
Although the Hungarian government has not taken any measures with the adoption of the coronavirus law that would undermine any democratic rights, countless statements of condemnation and concerns for democracy flooded the international social-liberal media in the midst of the epidemic.
According to the Voice of America, the first dictatorship within the EU was born in Hungary. As this paper says, the introduction of rule by decree by the Hungarian government fits into the confusing pattern that leaders from Ankara to Beijing and from Caracas to Moscow have made in order to consolidate their power. Others called Viktor Orbán the diseased dictator of Hungary, claiming that with the introduction of the extraordinary legal order, the Prime Minister had definitively abolished the remaining control that still existed in terms of government accountability.
The Economist went so far and depicted Viktor Orbán as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the infamous James Bond villain saying he had hollowed out the Hungarian state, rewrote the constitution, abolished the courts, and brought the media under his control, and now he has finally achieved what he had always wanted, his complete entrenchment in power.
Still Hungary carried out one of the most successful epidemic management in Europe. This state of danger measure was simply an immediate, effective action, which could have been very hardly achieved, in the case of a severe crisis caused by a pandemic, which could have potentially made Parliament inquorate due to the illness of Members. Because of the two-thirds majority of the government, the validity period could have been extended at any time, even for years. People have trusted the government measures as according to opinion polls, 80 percent of Hungarians were satisfied with the crisis measures of the Hungarian government. In mid-June, with 192 votes in favor of the deputies unanimously approved the proposal submitted by the Hungarian government, requesting the elimination of the emergency situation. According to the research of Nézőpont Institute, in April, 94% of Hungarians supported the extension of the emergency situation, which was also supported by 87% of those who declared themselves to be critical of the government. This trust is closely linked to the fact that the government, learning from the unfortunate examples of other European countries, began to introduce effective measures at the earliest stage of the outbreak.
Not to mention that in Hungary, legal regulation says that when the state of danger disappears, the special legal order ends automatically. Thus, the desperate Hungarian and international social-liberal opposition could hardly have been right when it claimed that Viktor Orbán intended to maintain limitless extraordinary power. The Hungarian government acted in accordance with the Constitution and the applicable legislation, moreover 100% of the members of the National Assembly voted in favor of ending of the state of danger.
Meanwhile in Sweden, the social-democratic Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has put forward a proposal that allows the government to take emergency measures for three months without the consent of the parliament. Also in early April, the Danish parliament unanimously passed the emergency law on the Coronavirus, which authorized health authorities to carry out investigations, treatments and take measures for quarantine with the support of the police. An interesting provision that pushes the boundaries of personal rights, in addition, the law allows authorities to force people to be vaccinated, even though there is still no vaccine proved to be effective against the virus.
In a statement issued in May, the Norwegian prime minister even predicted that the country would maintain the state of emergency until mid-August, but in some Member States, like in Luxembourg, the issue of state of emergency is not settled at all on a constitutional level. As the Grand Duke leads the armed forces, he decides on the declaration of war and the cessation of it, after the House of Representatives has authorized it to do so by a vote under certain conditions. The Belgian Constitution has no reference to deadlines. In this country, the king controls the armed forces and determines the state of war and the end of it.
Measures, which seriously affect fundamental rights, have been taken not only in the European Union but also outside it. One of the clearest examples is Switzerland. Research shows that the Federal Council restricts seven fundamental rights under the authority of the epidemiology act: equality before the law, personal freedom, freedom of religious and ideological belief, the right to primary education, freedom of association, and economic freedom. Freedom of gathering was completely suspended. This means that a quarter of all fundamental rights in the federal constitution was heavily affected.
Although legislation by decree is only applicable as a last resort, it was applied already more than 1 000 times during the Fifth Republic in France. With its 273-time application the champion is François Holland, on the second place of the podium is the incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, who used this measure 84 times during his presidency’s first 2 years. What is it, that if there is a bill that probably pass parliament, using Article 49.3 or legislating by decree (par ordonnance) is considered to be an appropriate, democratic solution? Is it normal that in case of the most scandalous reforms (Labor Code, railway, pension reform) these extraordinary legislative measures, bypassing the Parliament, were indispensable?
As it can be seen, the most serious virus of this century required the introduction of emergency measures all across Europe and beyond. The Hungarian government used this tool as well to protect the Hungarian people. Nothing justifies more the success of the defense, and the revocation of the state of emergency, than the fact that the number of active Covid-infected has been sharply declining for weeks, and the number of deaths have been almost zero.
We know that in the eyes of Western Europe, Hungary is still a "new member state" more than a decade and a half after accession, but slowly it would be time to end this double standard.