European Commission: “Emergency measures must not last indefinitely”
Tuesday, 31 March 2020
A majority in the Hungarian Parliament voted to dissolve itself. Parliament buildling in Budapest, Credit: Unsplash/ Jason Blackeye
Several EU governments have taken emergency measures to address the health crisis caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus. Today, the Commission spoke out for the first time about them.
In a statement (31 March), president Ursula von der Leyen expressed some understanding for such measures. “We are living in extraordinary times, and governments, in principle, need to have the necessary tools to act rapidly and effectively to protect the public health of our citizens.”
That said, emergency measures cannot be imposed at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the Treaties. “Democracy cannot work without free and independent media.”
“Respect of freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times. Now, it is more important than ever that journalists are able to do their job freely and precisely, so as to counter disinformation and to ensure that our citizens have access to crucial information.”
Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely. Moreover, governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny.
Her statement comes somewhat late. Until now, the Commission has declined to comment on announcements on draft legislation of emergency measures.
On Monday, the Hungarian government passed an emergency bill in parliament that allows the government to rule indefinitely by decree during a state of emergency, against wide-spread protests by European parliamentarians, members of the Hungarian opposition and civil society organisations. The bill was passed with 138 MPs voting in favour and 53 against.
The opposition had demanded a time limit for the government’s expanded powers, but the government argued that such a limit was detrimental to the fight against the coronavirus outbreak in the long term, for example if parliament would not be able to meet in 2020 due to the coronavirus.
The opposition, however, fears that the government will prolong the state of emergency for years under the pretext of the outbreak of the coronavirus.
In an open letter to EU leaders, nine media freedom organisations issued a warning last week: “If approved, this new law would grant the Hungarian government a convenient tool to threaten journalists and intimidate them into self-censorship. We fear this is a step toward the complete repression of media freedom in Hungary that could outlive the pandemic.”
Asked by The Brussels Times for a comment, the Commission only confirmed that it had received the letter.
Von der Leyen promised in her statement that the European Commission will closely monitor the application of emergency measures in all member states. Already at tomorrow’s meeting of all Commissioners, the college will discuss the emergency measures put into place by Hungary.
A spokesperson of the Commission explained at today’s on-line press briefing that a proposal for an enhanced rule of law mechanism has not been adopted yet. The mechanism was more intended to ensure sound financial management than to be used as a political instrument to deduct EU funding to member states that do no respect the rule of law.