Tuesday, 19 May 2020

What is the EU to do with a problem like Hungary?

Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the degradation of civil rights in both Poland and Hungary.

Of the two, the slide towards elective dictatorship looks more dangerous in Hungary:
Opposition politicians in Hungary are alarmed by a spate of detentions for alleged scaremongering on social media about the coronavirus pandemic. They fear that voices critical of the government are being silenced and accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orban of abusing special powers granted to him in March. [...] 

 Several people have been arrested at their homes and detained for several hours over social media posts. Police said on Thursday that 16 people have been questioned during their investigations. They added that they have been investigating 87 cases under emergency legislation for allegedly publishing "false information", and 27 cases of endangering the public. "Police are continuously monitoring the internet," an earlier statement said. The new law adopted on March 30 widens a pre-existing offence, giving the authorities powers to clamp down on "alarmist comments".

On Wednesday a member of the Momentum opposition party was detained in southern Hungary, over a social media post about a controversial government policy of clearing non-virus patients out of hospitals to make beds available for COVID-19 sufferers. János Csóka-Szűcs shared a post from opposition MP Ákos Hadházy, adding that 1,170 hospital beds in his town of Gyula were being cleared -- a claim that has been confirmed to be true. He was detained for four hours on the grounds that he had allegedly "obstructed efforts to combat the pandemic". 

 "The silencing of critical voices has begun, namely by police action intimidating people who are writing or telling the truth," Hadházy commented in a Facebook message.

The previous day a 64-year-old man was held for hours in northeastern Hungary over a message posted last month, criticising the government's lockdown policy. It included the remark: "You are a merciless tyrant, but remember, until now dictators always fall". Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the case had been closed.

What a pity that a major nation, the key player in the formulation of the European Convention on Human Rights, is not in there putting its weight behind moves to restore liberal democracy in Hungary.

However, as Euronews states, there is not a lot which can be done at present:
For the moment, MEPs' pleas are likely to go unheard. After all for Brussels, in the middle of a pandemic in which it's helping to fight a virus and battling to keep countries' economics alive, ongoing rule of law issues in Budapest are going to struggle to get on the agenda. 

But when this crisis passes – and it will – what can an increasingly frustrated and angry EU do? Well, it can’t kick Hungary out. While Article 50 allows for a country to leave, there is no such mechanism for forcing out a member state. The Article 7 process, which suspends members' voting rights, is also unlikely to go anywhere. Another member state can simply veto it. And Hungary has the backing of Poland and the Czech Republic.

The quickest and most-effective method could be to use the next EU budget to withhold financial payments, by qualified majority. Or allow the Commission to directly control the reallocation of funds, rather than funnelling them through Budapest. Hungary is a big recipient of these funds – reducing them would hurt. The European Union could also help foster and support democracy movements inside Hungary. The institutions could provide funding directly to municipalities and local governments as well as resources to trade unions, universities, and citizens' movements.

And finally, surely if Europe’s leaders were serious about sending a strong message to Orbán, the EPP, the union's largest political group, would simply force out Fidesz? Clearly, none of these decisions are easy, nor straightforward. But what’s the alternative? Sit back? Say nothing? Pretend it’s not happening? What would that then say about the EU’s values? Indeed, what would it say about the EU project itself?

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