The Czech and Hungarian penchant for emergency powers – POLITICO
William Nattrass is a Prague-based freelance journalist and commentator.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has caused another political storm, announcing a state of emergency in his country over the war in Ukraine, which he says “puts our physical security at risk and threatens energy and financial security. our economy and our families.
But if this state of emergency provoked strong reactions, Hungary is not the only country to count on additional powers of great scale. The state of emergency declared in early March in the Czech Republic due to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has also just been extended until at least the end of June.
And both countries’ continued reliance on such sweeping powers has not only become increasingly confusing, but poses a huge risk to their governments.
The day after the war emergency was imposed on Hungary, Orbán introduced a series of austerity measures, forcing banks, insurers, energy companies and other big business to pay a new tax on the additional profits generated by the increase in interest rates and prices. These additional revenues are intended to reduce consumption costs and provide additional funding for the Hungarian military.
Objections can be made to the move, but its logic is simple. Many Hungarians would be unhappy to see banks and multinationals pocketing huge profits due to turbulent circumstances, while families and small businesses struggle to make ends meet.
But whether or not Orbán’s economic interventions are justified, it is unclear why they required the use of emergency powers. His Fidesz party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority would have given him wide leeway to push through tax reforms and other economic measures simply using standard political procedures.
Interestingly, the day after Hungary announced its new levy, Czech opposition leader Andrej Babiš also demanded that dividends from the Czech Republic’s largest energy company, which he said, “drown in profits”, be distributed to small businesses in the country.
When I asked about the similarity to Hungary, the Czech Interior Ministry insisted that its emergency powers were different, as they did not put the country on a war footing. The emergency powers allowed the government “to direct regions and central state authorities to provide and allocate necessary accommodation capacity for refugees”, the ministry said. They have also been used to ensure rapid processing of refugee visa applications.
The Czech ministry’s eagerness to distance itself from Hungary illustrates another key difference. While the ability of the Czech government to enact drastic changes is limited by the constraints of coalition politics, Fidesz’s huge parliamentary majority gives Orbán much greater individual power.
Yet the Hungarian and Czech states of emergency allow these governments to suspend basic rights and laws. In Hungary, the government can “suspend the application of certain laws, derogate from legal provisions and take other extraordinary measures in order to protect life, health, personal property, legal certainty and the stability of the national economy. “.
In their decisions, the two governments emphasize the speed of action conferred on them by their emergency powers. Czech officials tell me that the state of emergency allows “more flexible and faster coordination of the activities of the authorities”. And while justifying the new urgency of the war, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltán Kovács pointed to the “quickness granted by the special legal order” during the pandemic.
Yet these governments are now focused on dealing with a wave of refugees and protecting the economy, without containing a fast-spreading virus. It is no longer true that skipping the hours normally devoted to debate could actually save lives.
In this new context, the Czech opposition believes that the government’s continued use of emergency powers is “incredible arrogance.”
Such arrogance could, however, be acceptable if the situation brought clear advantages in dealing with the crisis. But Prague City Hall has told me that the Czech capital has been short of refugee accommodation “for a long time”, and if the government cannot speed up the relocation of refugees to other parts of the country, the city may have to just stop processing new arrivals.
Administrative inefficiencies are exemplified by the dire situation at Prague’s main train station, where hundreds of Roma refugees from Ukraine are sleeping rough and dependent on the help of volunteers, unable to obtain visas or housing provided by the ‘State.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Vít Rakušan said the number of Ukrainian refugees has stabilized as many of them are now returning home, raising the question: if the acute phase of the crisis is over, why have the emergency powers been extended for a month?
The situation is even more bizarre in Hungary, where a state of emergency is in place to counter an economic disaster that hasn’t even materialized yet.
Both cases indicate a troubling readiness by both governments to enact emergency powers in all circumstances that place – or are expected to place – significant strain on public resources and infrastructure. But far from justifying the suspension of standard procedures, such situations make the checks and balances of a functioning democratic society more important than ever.
Shutting out debate and due process is not the path to more effective governance — it’s a surefire way to stoke resentment. Negativity towards refugees and distrust towards politicians will only worsen if the public faces difficulties in a lack of equitable political control.
By being too comfortable with the use of their emergency powers, Central European leaders are playing with fire.