Stabbed in the back: that must be how the European Union would feel these days if it were a person — quite like Julius Caesar in his last moments.
Managing the coronavirus crisis was not exactly a cup of tea for the EU, but the most recent troubles came from Hungary’s recent legislation, which has created a presidential system for the country that is not unlike that of Turkey.
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. As long as the new legislation is in effect, Parliament is suspended and no elections may be held. That sounds very familiar as far Turkey is concerned: quite reminiscent of the “Turkish style presidency” that has been in effect since 2018.
But there is more to Hungary’s new legislative framework. Two new types of crimes are created:
First, publicizing “false and distorted facts interfering with successful protection of the public, or alarming/agitating the public” may be punished with up to five years in prison.
Secondly, those who “interfere with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order” could face a prison sentence up to five years; if any death occurs as a result of the “interference,” the sentence is increased to eight years.
Many governments around the world took unprecedented emergency measures, so for anyone unfamiliar with Hungary, the “COVID-19 Bill” may seem to be just another such measure. But to put it mildly, Hungary does not exactly have the greatest record when it comes to freedoms and rights since 2010, when the Fidesz government led by Orbán assumed power.
What’s more, Hungary went far ahead of any other state in the world to implement such a sweeping, comprehensive and lasting systemic transformation.
The aforementioned two new crimes would be permanent changes to the criminal code and would stay emblazoned in the Hungarian legal system for good. However, the introduction of the two new crimes may just be the beginning: as separation of powers evaporate in Hungary through this legislation of this bill, “Koronadiktatúra” (Koronadictatorship) is not an out-of-place nickname for the new system.
According to the text of the bill, Orbán can now “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations, and implement additional extraordinary measures by degree.” So, the Fidesz government may shape Hungary in any way it wishes for decades to come — even if the COVID-19 virus becomes a distant memory.
Moreover, Hungary already has its COVID-19 epidemic under control. As of March 31, Hungary had 492 confirmed cases of coronavirus-positive patients and 16 people have passed away due to the viral infection. On March 27, a curfew was declared, under which residents of Hungary may only leave their premises for work or to run errands for basic needs. Only grocery, drug stores, and pharmacies may stay open. Those out will be required to keep one and a half meters apart, and those above 65 may only go out for shopping at food stores and pharmacies between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. Gathering or going out as anything that resembles a group (more than a few people) is banned.
The curfew is to stay in place until April 11, but the new law can stay in place indefinitely until it is voted out. And Fidesz already has a two-thirds majority in Parliament; this is how the legislation was passed anyway. As there can be no elections under the “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law,” it is a vicious circle.
It may be easy to brush aside what is happening in Hungary, but Orbán is visionary in his own right indeed. He was talking about the “impending threat of migration” long before anyone else did, and after the 2015 refugee crisis, his rhetoric became mainstream across Europe, the U.S., and beyond.
Hence, the European Union has a reason to worry. The COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral, providing false hopes of stability and order in the face of chaos and crisis.