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Combating Europe’s authoritarian virus: the case of Hungary

In the 10 years since the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his FIDESZ party have been in power, the European Commission has intervened directly with member states on hundreds of occasions to enforce cuts to health care, pensions and unemployment benefits, promote privatization of public services and limit collective bargaining rights. Faced with a March 30 law which, under cover of the COVID-19 emergency, empowers Hungary’s Prime Minister to rule by decree for an unlimited period, suspend existing legislation and jail media critics for up to 5 years, the President of the European Commission cannot even bring herself to name the Prime Minister or the offending government.  

The escalating attack on democracy has been timed for a moment of maximum distraction. While the emergency powers were ostensibly adopted in response to the virus crisis, Orbán has capitalized on the pandemic to enact a series of decrees that have nothing to do with COVID-19. The government has adopted measures to curtail the tax revenue of municipalities governed by the opposition and introduced regulations enabling employment protections established in the labour code and collective bargaining agreements to be set aside for an indefinite period. The regime’s current legislative priorities include withdrawing legal recognition from trans people and a law to classify for ten years information on the government construction projects which have enriched Orbán and his cronies.

Orbán is not the only head of state capitalizing on the pandemic to pursue an authoritarian agenda – Trump in the United States, China’s party-state, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Turkey’s Erdoğan and Indian Prime Minister Modi are adroitly making use of the crisis, and their countries possess incomparably greater global weight than Hungary. But the European Union is the world’s second-largest economic power, and claims a constitutional commitment to democracy, human rights and, yes, ‘solidarity’.

Orbán has been systematically constructing an ethno-nationalist authoritarian system in a succession of calculated provocations. The measures taken along the road to rule by emergency decree have not simply violated the ‘values’ discretely evoked by Commission President von der Leyen; they were all flagrant violations of EU laws and treaties and international human rights law.

A short list would include: policies which encourage violence and discrimination against the country’s impoverished Roma population; the virtual elimination of independent media; party control of the judicial system; legislation to criminalize asylum seekers and even advocacy on their behalf; denying food to migrants forcibly confined in a border zone; legislation requiring NGOs receiving financial support from abroad to register as ‘foreign agents’; a law enabling 400 hours of annual overtime work with payment delayed for up to 3 years; aggressive government promotion of a conspiracy theory alleging a Jewish-financed plot to ‘de-Christianize’ Europe through migration, flanked by a referendum; and a thorough rewriting of the constitution and electoral law to enable indefinite party control. With each new attack on rights, the EU has retreated; the ‘center-right’ European People’s Party, the largest grouping in the European Parliament which includes von der Leyen’s German CDU, cannot even bring itself to expel FIDESZ.

Preemptive surrender to Orbán’s escalating attacks on democracy has emboldened Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which since 2015 has been cementing its grip on the media and the courts. Under cover of the lockdown, the government is now pursuing the attack on women’s reproductive rights which was defeated by mass street protests in healthier times. Authoritarian governments in the two countries mutually reinforce and shield one another. Action against one cannot be effective under the existing, ineffectual procedures without action against the two governments simultaneously,

In an April 1 letter to the competent EU authorities, ETUC General Secretary Luca Visentini called for immediate action to challenge the emergency law, including greater scrutiny of EU funding for Hungary. The initiative deserves support. It comes at a time when unions are overwhelmed by the virus emergency and economic collapse but is nonetheless urgent, particularly in view of the strengthened authoritarian tendencies which will need to be combatted as the world attempts to recover from the pandemic.

Legal challenges to the Orbán government at the Court of Justice of the European Union have thus far had no impact; the Article 7 procedure which potentially suspends member states’ rights needs broad support, presently lacking; and the damage to democracy will not be repaired with the abrogation of a single piece of legislation. The destruction runs much deeper.

From 2010, the Eurozone financial crisis brought forth an abundance of new mechanisms and institutions for imposing and enforcing austerity. Can we not demand new mechanisms to effectively halt the spread of an authoritarian virus? Unions can advocate for precisely calibrated measures to isolate the Orbán government while giving maximum support to democratic forces fighting to defend their rapidly shrinking space inside Hungary.

 

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