The coronavirus has proved a great boon to the world’s authoritarians. From the imposition of border closures to the utilization of mass digital surveillance, moves that may have once been classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded as necessary steps in the global effort to curb a pandemic. Extraordinary times, it has been collectively agreed, call for extraordinary measures.
But there is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism—one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With this week’s passage of a law effectively removing any oversight and silencing any criticism of the Hungarian government, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can now rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. That such an erosion of democracy could happen openly in the heart of Europe has caused an uproar, with many questioning what, if anything, the European Union can do to stop one of its own from undermining the very values that underpin the bloc.
So far, the answer has been, well, nothing. For while the EU has long been regarded (particularly by its detractors) as an entity that has become all too powerful—able to set rules that national parliaments must accept, implementing bloc-wide standards that must be adhered to—this pandemic is proving the exact opposite: that, in the face of a global crisis in which nation-states are leading the response, a multinational force such as the EU is largely powerless. As norms have been overturned to contain the coronavirus, the EU, which is built on, and gains strength from, promoting and upholding a rules-based order, has demonstrated itself incapable of keeping up.