As if European Union leaders didn’t know what has been taking place in Hungary over the past decade.

Since his election as prime minister back in 2010, Viktor Orbán has systematically undermined the rule of law, weakened the judiciary, grabbed control of large parts of the media, and curbed independent academic institutions, such as the Central European University.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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As if that was not enough, he has demonized refugees, built a barbed-wire fence to keep them from crossing into the country, and denied nongovernmental organizations and human rights activists access to any detained refugees or migrants, for example to help them file asylum requests.

All these actions are being taken by a country that is a member of the EU and NATO. Both organizations are supposed to be based on upholding freedom and fundamental rights, although NATO’s non-record on speaking out about Turkey’s erosion of democracy is next to shameful.

Orbán, a dissident during the communist era, has railed against the EU, in particular its commitment to democratic values. For him, his political ideology is about creating an “illiberal” democracy based on nationalism and a conservatism based on select Christian values. Forget the fact that an illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms. Forget too that defending national sovereignty doesn’t have to mean weakening the rule of law.

Not content with chiseling away at Hungary’s democratic institutions—and knowing that the EU and even the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament group that represents conservative parties throughout the EU, were too weak or cowardly to rein in his ambitions—Orbán has now gone a stage further.

On March 30, 2020, the Hungarian parliament passed a bill giving Orbán sweeping new powers to deal with the coronavirus pandemic—as if he didn’t already have enough powers.

In practice, parliament has been stripped of its legislative authority. Elections cannot be held during the state of emergency that was declared on March 11. Anyone spreading fake news or disinformation about the virus faces prison terms of up to five years.

“At the end of the emergency, all powers will be fully restored,” Orbán told parliament, which is dominated by his conservative Fidesz party.

In introducing such measures, Orbán has become the first EU leader to exploit the pandemic for his own political ends. And he will not be the last—unless other European and NATO leaders sanction him.

Until now, the most influential politician in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, held back from expelling Orbán from the EPP, or openly criticizing him, or calling for some kind of economic or political sanctions in order to salvage Hungarian democracy.

Merkel’s spokesman sent out a statement: “We will do everything that is necessary to protect our citizens and overcome the crisis, while preserving our European values and way of life.” Now isn’t that going to have an effect on Orbán!

As for Didier Reynders, the EU’s justice commissioner, he tweeted the following: “@EU_Commission evaluates the emergency measures taken by Member States with regard to fundamental rights. This is particularly the case for the law passed today in #Hungary concerning the state of emergency and new criminal penalties for the dissemination of false information.” Such a bland reaction by the European Commission makes a mockery of what the EU stands for.

The EU could have taken steps in the past to rein in Orbán. It could have suspended Hungary’s voting rights in the Council of the European Union, which represents the member states. That was always going to be difficult because some of Hungary’s allies, notably Poland, would have vetoed it.

It could have reduced or imposed conditionality on the EU’s cohesion funds, which are aimed at reducing economic disparities between member states. In 2018, cohesion funds amounted to 3.5 percent of Hungary’s GNI. And some of those funds have been misused by Orbán. Yet despite that, the EU didn’t take action.

It’s hard to see Brussels taking action now. This is because the EU and most of the bloc’s leaders can only deal with one crisis at a time. Containing the coronavirus pandemic, not challenging Viktor Orbán’s powers, is the number one priority.

Yet even if the EU doesn’t take any kind of action against Orbán, surely meaningful and strong statements by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel, and other leaders are needed. And just as important is the reaction by NATO and the United States.

Since U.S. President Donald Trump is a great fan of Orbán, one cannot expect the White House to be too bothered about the erosion of democracy in an EU country. And, anyway, Trump really doesn’t have much sympathy or respect for the EU as an organization because of its strong regulatory powers related to trade and competition and its values system.

So far, the State Department hasn’t issued any comments. At least, Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the committee on foreign affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives, criticized Orbán’s new powers, given to him “under the guise of measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In a strongly worded statement, Engel wrote that Orbán “is making a blatant power grab in the face of the worst global health crisis in recent history. This legislation marginalizes the Hungarian parliament and allows Prime Minister Orbán to rule by decree like a dictator.”

And he continued: “Such a serious affront to democracy anywhere is outrageous, and particularly within a NATO ally and EU member. Those organizations are founded on their members’ shared respect for freedom and democratic values. It is particularly egregious that Prime Minister Orbán attempts to capitalize on the suffering of his own citizens for personal gain.”

This is the kind of statement that NATO and the EU should sign onto. And then the EU, pushed by Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, should put pressure on those member states, including Poland, who oppose sanctioning Hungary.

If Orbán can exploit the coronavirus pandemic to destroy Hungarian democracy, the EU and NATO should quit using the pandemic as an excuse not to challenge Orbán.