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Orban’s Pandemic Power Grab Reveals the EU’s Wider Frailties

Europe is alarmed by Hungary’s authoritarian turn, but can do little to stop it.

Hungarian Prime Minister Orban in Brussels on Feb. 21.

Hungarian Prime Minister Orban in Brussels on Feb. 21.

Photographer: Riccardo Pareggiani/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Viktor Orban was Hungary’s firebrand champion of democracy when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the liberal student leader who told the Russians to go home. As an authoritarian prime minister three decades later, he just called into question whether his country is a democracy at all.

With the European Union preoccupied with how to fight the novel coronavirus and its economic fallout, Orban enhanced his already formidable power on March 30 by allowing himself to rule by decree indefinitely, ostensibly to tackle the emergency. There were murmurs of outrage in western European capitals, followed by private admission that the EU isn’t capable—or willing—to do anything about its rogue member. “In Brussels, they sit in a bubble and dish out criticism instead of saving lives,” an emboldened Orban told Hungarian state radio on April 3.