EU governments concerned over Hungary's emergency measures

BRUSSELS, April 1 (Reuters) - Thirteen European Union countries expressed concern on Wednesday over emergency steps adopted by Hungary’s nationalist government to fight the coronavirus crisis, worried they posed a risk to principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.

Hungary’s parliament on Monday granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban an open-ended right to rule by decree and introduced jail sentences for anyone hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information about the pandemic.

In a joint statement, Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden said the emergency measures should be limited to what is strictly necessary, should be proportionate and temporary in nature and subject to regular scrutiny.

“They should not restrict the freedom of expression or the freedom of the press,” the joint statement said.

“We therefore support the European Commission initiative to monitor the application of emergency measures to ensure the fundamental values of the Union are upheld,” they said.

The Commission, the EU’s executive body, said it would analyse Hungary’s law and monitor its implementation. Hungary has already raised the Commission’s hackles by expanding state control over the media, academics and rights groups.

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said on Tuesday the law was “congruent with the (EU) treaties and Hungarian constitution, and targeted exclusively at fighting the coronavirus.”

In Hungary’s eurosceptic ally Poland, the government has already restricted movement and economic activity through executive decrees.

It could have declared a legal “state of natural disaster” but this might have called into question a presidential election being held on May 10, in which the incumbent, allied to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, leads in the opinion polls.

Both Poland and Hungary - formerly communist countries on the EU’s eastern flank - are involved in running battles with Brussels, which accuses them of undermining the EU’s basic democratic principles. (Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Mark Potter)