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Mar 28, 2020 - Miklós Szánthó

Q&A on the “Coronavirus Bill” and the state of danger

Here’s why it is necessary and why it should have been passed earlier this week

Q: What is the so-called “Coronavirus Bill” and why is it necessary?

With the many health-related, social and economic risks posed by the coronavirus epidemic, it is vital that the government be given authorization to pass countermeasures in the fastest and most effective way possible. The declaration of a state of danger a temporary special legal order that permits governing by way of government decrees, has served this very purpose.

According to Hungary’s constitutional regulations pertaining to special legal orders, the government may declare and terminate a state of danger and “may adopt decrees by means of which it may suspend the application of certain acts, derogate from the provisions of acts and take other extraordinary measures,” a piece of legislation that has remained largely unchanged since 1990. Although the declaration (and termination) needs no consent from the Hungarian Parliament, “extraordinary decrees” will remain in force for only 15 days unless the parliament extends those decrees. The “Coronavirus Bill” calls for the extension of measures introduced over the last two weeks.

Q: What happened in Parliament on Monday, March 23?

The government’s intention with the proposed bill was to keep extraordinary measures in effect that would have otherwise expired due to the 15-day limitation clause. In order to avoid legal uncertainty, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán asked the Hungarian Parliament on Monday to adopt the bill in an “accelerated procedure.”

While the adoption of the bill needs a two-thirds majority, and the governing coalition commands a sufficient number of votes to achieve this, the accelerated procedure requires four-fifths of the MPs to vote in favor of the bill as well. This means that some support was needed from the left-liberal parties and the Jobbik party.

Opposition parties, however, refused to cooperate. This means that there will now be a gap of a few days between the expiration of some decrees and the extension of the state of danger, as the bill is expected to pass on Monday, March 30. Such decrees include the special role of the Coronavirus Operational Group supporting the prime minister in his efforts to tackle the crisis, a ban on entry into Hungary for non-citizens, the reorganization of teaching in higher education, quarantine for Hungarians arriving home, expulsion of foreigners who do not cooperate with authorities, etc.

In order to mitigate the adverse consequences of the opposition’s stubborn irresponsibility, the government requested the cooperation of the effected institutions and the people to maintain the efforts established in the ‘expires’ decrees and asked the authorities participating in the management of the crisis to issue the necessary rules as a stopgap measure for the period in question, until the Coronavirus Response Bill is passed. Naturally, these solutions offer a far less solid legal background for the forthcoming few days than what the extraordinary decrees themselves provide.

Q: According to the Hungarian opposition, the problem with the bill is that it doesn’t have an expiration date. Is this true?

Practically speaking, no.

The question of when the epidemiological situation warrants the introduction or the lifting of the state of danger is not a legal question. Parliament will exercise control and oversight because it can and will continue to convene while the state of danger is in effect. While it’s true that the bill doesn’t put an end date on the extension of extraordinary measures, the Hungarian Parliament can withdraw its consent anytime when it’s in session with a quorum present.

At the same time, the indefinite nature of the bill is necessary due to the state of danger and in order to avoid a situation in which the epidemic would prevent parliament from sitting.

The accusations of the opposition and several left-liberal NGOs that this amounts to “dictatorship” are difficult to understand for another reason as well: Fidesz and the Christian Democrats already have a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament. Dismantling the parliamentary system with such a strong majority would make no sense at all from a political point of view. Why on earth would the government ignore a parliament where it has a two-thirds majority or try to exclude it from the decision-making process?

Q: Is there another European country that has taken measures similar to those that Hungary is planning now?

A: Many EU countries introduced some type of special legal order or state of emergency/danger, including France, Italy, Spain, and Central European states as well. The UK parliament passed an emergency bill this week that allows extraordinary measures never employed in peace time in the UK. Regulations on extraordinary legal measures vary in Europe, of course, and the relevant constitutional declarations diverge in their clarity and length. In some cases, it is not even called a special legal order: the French government, for instance, introduced the hotly contested reform of the pension system bypassing the parliament in early March because the French constitution allows it, if the government survives the vote of no-confidence.

Q: What does the Hungarian public say about the state of danger?

A: According to recent polls, more than 90 percent of Hungarians support the declaration of a state of danger and the extraordinary decrees introduced because of the pandemic. The operation of our healthy democratic society, in which all political players bear key responsibility for all citizens is thus not endangered by the Orbán Government but by those who, driven by a political agenda, spread unfounded and malicious propaganda even at the potential cost of undermining measures designed to safeguard the health of Hungarians.

The author of this guest post is the director of the Center for Fundamental Rights. For more details on the topic, see here.