Press release: We need to act now to safeguard democracy and the rule of law in Europe

Brussels, 1 April 2020

 

Only two weeks after our Democracy under Pressure campaign, it has come to this: Monday, March 30 will be marked in history as a tragic day for Hungarian democracy. It is now up to the European Union to finally sharpen its pencils and ensure the Union does not only demand others to live values but also lives them themselves. For years,  we have been pointing out, writing, and organising for democracy in Hungary and Poland. Things moved in the right direction, whenever European interests were represented: in the Commission, and in the Parliament procedures have started. It has been up to the Member States to act in the Council, it has been up to the European political parties to reflect about their membership.

 

Despite the non-partisan character of our organisation, it is time for us and others to speak up when the values we base ourselves and our activism on are endangered by the politics of particular political parties. We thus welcome President Tusk's call on members of the European People’s Party to reconsider the position of Fidesz within the Christian-Democratic family. Recent events confirm that the values of Prime Minister Orbán, and of Fidesz at large, are inconsistent and outright contrary to those of a party that has had such a pivotal role in the history of European integration. It is time the EPP reclaimed those values, starting with the expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP.

 

Everyone needs to be clear about this: the fact that a parliament has adopted a law does not make a state rule-of-law abiding. This is ruling by law. Europe, however, is based on the rule of law: a system where those in power cannot arbitrarily abuse it, against a minority. And what is happening in these European countries is clearly endangering the rule of law. It is not a coincidence that for years global democracy surveys keep pointing out the negative growth happening in these countries.

 

Do not mistake this as merely a Hungarian or Polish issue: our democracies are interconnected and they  are under pressure, questioning the constitutional value of the legal order in Europe, crumbling slowly but steadily in front of our eyes by illiberal governments. These governments exploit once more the dramatic contingencies of our times. But we are clear in this, we stand with the democrats in Hungary and Poland.

 

The reaction from Commission President von der Leyen was frankly speaking disappointing. We expected a clearer response. Moreover, European Commissioner Varhelyi from Hungary should practice immediate political distancing from the  decision of the national government. 

 

“The Art. 7 procedure needs to be reformed”

 

The next General Affairs Council meeting surely must be awkward: for months, Member States have been slow in working in the Art. 7 procedure. And now, as the Hungarian law has been adopted, as Polish opposition is factually hindered in campaigning, Member States will still have to meet to continue discussing whether there might be a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’. You have missed your moment. It should be now clear to everyone why we need to reform the rule of law procedure into an efficient tool.

 

Next to the faulty logic to require unanimity in a further procedural step, when the Hungarian and the Polish government have already assured each other to block it, the process lacks a clear timeline. To avoid similar situations, the European Union needs to introduce a European Review Mechanism on Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights (DRF), as proposed by the European Parliament, ever since 2013. 

 

The European Commission also has other tools currently available, such as infringement procedures: Whilst these processes have their full validity, we need the Commission to think of European citizens in Hungary and Poland and act, not just in a year but now.

 

Negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework should learn lessons from the Art. 7 procedure and urgently revise the wording on conditionality in case of Rule of Law deficiencies to avoid that this process too becomes an impossible political hurdle to take. 

 

The state of emergency is something we are experiencing all over Europe. To protect citizens from the effects of the pandemic, including the exploitation of the crisis by iliberal governments, the European Union needs to have effective democratic tools on fundamental matters. Building up a federal Europe means realizing democracy and safeguarding European citizens’ rights. If we do not act fast, nationalism and authoritarian positions will become stronger in these challenging times.

 

What happened this week?

 

In Hungary, Orbán’s government will be able to govern by itself according to the decree, with Parliament being suspended without any temporal constraints. Moreover, the same newly adopted enabling act allows the imprisonment of up to five years to anyone who will publish news considered “fake” by the authorities, which risks penalizing independent journalists, as criticised by e.g. the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir. Yesterday, a proposal was made that ii.a. practically suspends the autonomy of municipalities as they will not be able to govern without the approval of newly established defence/protection committees, consisting of Fidesz-friendly appointees. Four out of five major cities in Hungary have elected opposition mayors in the past six months. Luckily this has been withdrawn shortly before publication. 

 

In Poland, President Duda refuses to postpone the Presidential elections (10.05.2020), while oppositions cannot implement an electoral campaign with the ongoing pandemic. Considering the diffusion of Coronavirus, President Duda is persistently present in the media and, under the emergency, the democratic participation in the elections cannot be safeguarded. 

 

Background 

 

After Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament in 2010, they have pushed through a set of constitutional and legal changes to take control of the country’s institutions and strengthen the party’s position via-à-vis the opposition. Fidesz has also implemented a restrictive media law in the early 2010s and adopted a law on foreign funding for civil society in 2017, weakening the freedom of speech and civil society as well as limiting academic freedom. That year, the European Commission referred Hungary’s 2017 Higher Education Law and law on foreign-funded NGOs to the EU Court of Justice. In 2018, the EC did the same with Hungary’s 2017 asylum law.

 

Moreover, Orbán’s government passed in 2018 the so-called “Stop Soros” laws aimed at criminalising NGOs helping migrants and refugees. In September of the same year the European Parliament triggered Article 7(1) TEU, initiating the procedure to ask the European Council to determine if there was risk of a serious breach of the EU's founding values. 

 

Freedom House categorized the country in 2019 for the first time as “partly free”, after five consecutive years of decline and 13 years without improvement. 

 

In December 2019, the Hungarian government passed a new law to increase control over the country's theaters, further shrinking the civic space, as well as new law which threatens judicial independence.

 

What is the so-called Art. 7 procedure?

 

The Article 7 TEU procedure allows for EU institutions to flag a clear risk of a serious breach (Art. 7(1) TEU) and of the existence of a serious and persistent breach of EU values (Art. 7(2) TEU). In case the latter has been determined, the Council, meaning the EU Member States, may decide to suspend certain rights of the Member State, e.g. voting rights in the Council.

The process to deal with the situation in Poland for Art. 7(1) was launched in December 2017, the process to deal with the situation in Hungary for Art. 7(1)  was launched in September 2018. To date, both processes are still stuck in the Council configuration. 

 

 

JEF on Democracy in Hungary

 

 

More information on JEF Europe

 

The Young European Federalists (JEF) Europe is a non-partisan youth NGO with over 13.000 members active in more than 35 countries. Founded in 1972, the organisation strives towards a federal Europe based on the principles of democracy, subsidiarity and rule of law. JEF promotes true European Citizenship, and works towards more active participation of young people in democratic life. One of its flagship campaigns is the annual “Democracy under Pressure” campaign which raises awareness of the state of democracy throughout Europe. JEF Europe, as a member of the platform “Civil Society Europe”, campaigned as part of the #VoteYES4Hungary alliance. 

 

Contact:
 

Leonie Martin

President of JEF Europe

president@jef.eu