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EU chief: Fighting virus should not erode democratic rights

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union's top official urged member countries Tuesday to respect the bloc’s core values amid fears that restrictions imposed by some national governments to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic could erode democracy and restrict human rights across the continent.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the need for emergency measures as reported virus-related deaths approached 30,000 in Europe, but she reminded EU members they need to respect values such as the rule of law, human rights and media freedom during the public health crisis.

Von der Leyen's comments came a day after Hungary's parliament approved a bill giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government extraordinary powers with no end date in response to the pandemic. Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes' cabinet also has been granted authority to govern by decree without parliamentary involvement for six months. French lawmakers passed a law increasing the prime minister’s powers, a move harshly criticized by a magistrates’ union and the human rights league.

In many other European countries, the suspension of previously guaranteed personal freedoms, including the right to demonstrate, to gather and to circulate freely, have raised fears that temporary policies might be extended to last beyond exceptional lockdowns.

“It is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values,” von der Leyen said. “Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely. Moreover, governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny.”

Orban has insisted that the country's parliament will decide when the government’s extraordinary authority should end. “I don’t have the power to extend anything,” Orban said. “When parliament decides that the state of emergency is over, then everything will be over and life will return to the normal lawmaking order.”

Worldwide, more than 801,000 confirmed virus cases were reported worldwide and more than 172,000 people declared recovered from COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and even death.

Von der Leyen said the European Commission would monitor “in a spirit of cooperation” the application of emergency laws adopted in EU nations. “We all need to work together to master this crisis. On this path, we will uphold our European values and human rights. This is who we are, and this is what we stand for,” she said.

Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this story.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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