EU chief 'concerned' about Hungary virus emergency law

Brussels (AFP) –


European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen expressed concern Thursday over a coronavirus emergency law in Hungary that has given nationalist premier Viktor Orban sweeping powers.

While saying EU countries may need extraordinary measures to tackle the pandemic, she added: "I am concerned that certain measures go too far -- and I'm particularly concerned with the situation in Hungary."

Hungary's parliament, dominated by Orban's ruling party, handed the prime minister the power from Tuesday to rule by decree until his government decides the virus crisis is over.

The emergency law also threatens journalists with prison if they publish what it deems "falsehoods" about the virus or the government's actions to slow it.

The law has sparked alarm among rights groups, media organisations and several EU countries, with fears it was a power grab by Orban, who has ruled Hungary for the past decade.

Thirteen EU nations, including heavyweights France and Germany, issued a joint statement on Wednesday that -- without explicitly naming Hungary -- said they were "deeply concerned about the risk of violations of the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights arising from the adoption of certain emergency measures".

Von der Leyen up to now had been similarly circumspect, avoiding singling Hungary out by name. On Tuesday, she emphasised that coronavirus emergency measures in EU countries must be limited, proportionate and cannot last indefinitely.

- EU threatens 'action' -

As part of her response to questions on Thursday specifically on Hungary, von der Leyen said that where EU countries' measures do no meet those criteria "we will take action as necessary as we have already done in the past".

Her Commission, she added, was "mapping the whole situation" and weighing them against those standards.

Orban's government argues that it is upholding EU values and press freedom with the emergency law.

His spokesman for international relations tweeted on Wednesday that "the Hungarian state of emergency and extraordinary measures are congruent with the treaties and Hungarian constitution and targeted exclusively at fighting the coronavirus".

Orban, frequently in hot water with the Commission over his anti-EU stances, is worried about his Fidesz party remaining part of an EU-wide conservative political grouping, the European People's Party (EPP).

Orban contacted leading EPP figures -- including, in a letter obtained by AFP, the head of Germany's powerful CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer -- appealing for support, party figures said.

EPP head Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council representing EU leaders, has written his own letter to EPP member party chiefs calling Hungary's emergency measures "disproportionate and inadequate".