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A creeping #Coronavirus coup

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Exceptional times require exceptional measures. Governments across Europe are introducing unprecedented policies to minimize the spread of COVID-19. In the middle of political uncertainties, some authoritarian governments are using the pandemic to advance their own political goals and massively expand state powers. Despite the unprecedented nature of the crisis, autocrats cannot be left alone to further tighten their grip on power – especially when this is happening in an EU country, writes Epicenter European Policy Information Center Director Adam Bartha. 

Hungary – alongside with Poland – has long been the black sheep of the EU when it comes to the respect of the rule of law and liberal-democratic foundations. The shaky grounds have been further eroded, as a result of a bill the Parliament passed on the 30th March. The bill is meant to outline the measures that aim to slow the spread of coronavirus. In reality, the legislation goes much further than that, potentially giving unlimited powers to the prime minister for the foreseeable future.

The bill suspends the Hungarian Parliament indefinitely and governance would be replaced with a direct ‘rule by decree’ by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. In effect, this means that the Prime Minister will be able to introduce and disregard any type of legislation for an unlimited period of time. The Speaker of the National Assembly and the leaders of the political parties sitting in the parliament ‘will be informed’ about these decisions, but they will not have the power to influence them. The Constitutional Court will remain functional and have oversight on the decrees introduced by the Prime Minister, but Orbán had 10 years to fill the court with friendly judges, therefore they will likely continue assisting the Prime Minister in his endeavours.

The fears about the future misuse of power are further exacerbated by the rest of the bill. The proposed legislative changes would enable the “suspension of certain laws and take extraordinary measures in the interest of guaranteeing the stabilisation of the lives, health, personal and material security of citizens, as well as the economy.” These extraordinary measures include three crucial points.

First, an outright ban on all elections and referendums, including by-elections, in case a member of a parliament dies or is unable to fulfil their function. Second, anyone who disrespects the quarantine orders can be punished with a 5 year-long prison sentence – 8 years if the actions can be linked to someone’s death. Third, anyone who spreads lies or ‘true statements in a distorted manner’ that might interfere with the ‘successful protection’ of the public – or that alarm or agitate that public – could be punished by up to five years in prison.

These extraordinary measures would be a worrying sign in a well-functioning democracy as well, but Hungary is very far from being one. Under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, Hungary dropped faster in the Freedom House Index than any other country on the globe besides seven, a group that included Venezuela, Turkey, and the Central African Republic.

Orbán’s premiership was well-known in the last decade for effectively rolling back the liberal-democratic foundations of his country. The public broadcaster is a 24/7 party propaganda for the governing party, private media organisations are in the hands of government-friendly oligarchs, therefore dissenting voices are scarce, except for a few online media outlets. The ruling party adopted a one-party constitution in 2012 which has been modified seven times since, based on the momentary political interests of Orbán. The Constitutional Court, filled by friendly judges of the government, has never posed any serious threat to the power of the ruling party, nor have the opposition parties whose options of action are severely curtailed.

The government’s reaction to the pandemic was bound to be centred around gesture politics, instead of real measures. The latter is much more difficult to realise in a country with an overcentralised healthcare system that was already gradually collapsing before the pandemic. Maintaining the image of competent governance will require even more fake news, even harsher measures to oppress dissenting voices and even more centralised power than Orbán had in the last decade.

Some of these measures will not seem as extraordinary, as they would have two months ago. Other European countries are also introducing policies that severely curtail individual freedoms in order to fight the pandemic. Although time-limited, strictly supervised extraordinary measures are understandable in times of unprecedented crisis, the proposals of the Hungarian government go far beyond that.

Orbán already had a much tighter grip on power before the corona crisis than any of his fellow European prime ministers. But as any good authoritarian, he saw an unmissable opportunity to further consolidate his power. As European governments are battling the pandemic and EU institutions are preoccupied with maintaining the flow of goods and some solidarity between their members, a small country with a problematic leader is the least of their worries. They might be right, but the actions of Hungary have set a dangerous precedence for any EU member state.

The unwillingness and inability of EU leaders to stop financing the authoritarian government of Hungary in good times, will come back and bite much harder now during an unprecedented crisis. As the Hungarian government made the next step towards further deepening its autocratic governance, European leaders should rethink their relationship with Hungary and the financial assistance they provide for authoritarian leaders within their members.

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Coronavirus variants: Commission calls for limiting essential travel from India

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The Commission calls on EU member states to take co-ordinated action to further restrict travel from India on a temporary basis, with a view to limiting the spread of the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India. This follows a proposal of the World Health Organization on 10 May 2021 to change the classification of that variant from “variant of interest” to “variant of concern”. It is important to limit to the strict minimum the categories of travellers that can travel from India for essential reasons and to subject those who may still travel from India to strict testing and quarantine arrangements.

To ensure a fully co-ordinated and efficient response to this variant and taking into account the deteriorating health situation in India, the Commission proposes that member states apply an ‘emergency brake' on non-essential travel from India. On 3 May, the Commission had proposed to add an ‘emergency brake mechanism' to the Council recommendation on restrictions to non-essential travel.

Limited exemptions for those travelling for compelling reasons, subject to strict safeguards

The restrictions should not affect those travelling for compelling reasons such as for imperative family reasons or persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons. EU citizens and long-term residents, as well as their family members, should still be able to travel to Europe.

For those travellers, the Commission calls on member states to apply additional health-related measures such as strict testing and quarantine arrangements. These measures should apply regardless of whether the travellers have been vaccinated.

Next steps

Any restrictions on essential travel from India should be temporary and regularly reviewed. member states should assess their effectiveness in containing the new variant. When triggering the ‘emergency brake' mechanism to further restrict travel from a non-EU country, the member states meeting within the Council structures should review the situation together in a coordinated manner and in close co-operation with the Commission.

Background

A temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU is currently in place from many non-EU countries, including from India, based on a recommendation agreed by the Council.

Following a proposal by the Commission, the Council agreed on 2 February 2021 additional safeguards and restrictions for international travellers into the EU, aimed at ensuring that essential travel to the EU continues safely in the context of the emergence of new coronavirus variants and the volatile health situation worldwide.

On 3 May, the Commission proposed that member states ease the current restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU to take into account the progress of vaccination campaigns and developments in the epidemiological situation worldwide while putting in place a new ‘emergency brake mechanism', to address coronavirus variants. The ‘emergency brake mechanism' is a coordination mechanism intended to limit the risk of variants of interest and variants of concern entering the EU. It allows member states to act quickly and in a coordinated manner to temporarily limit to a strict minimum all travel from a non-EU country where the epidemiological situation worsens quickly and in particular where a variant of concern or interest is detected.

Variants of interest and variants of concern are assessed as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and for the EU by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) based on key properties of the virus such as transmission, severity and ability to escape immune response.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has assessed the B.1.617.2 variant first detected in India as a variant of interest and keeps this assessment under constant review. Variants of interest are variants that show increased transmissibility and severity. On 10 May 2021, the World Health Organization proposed to change the classification of the B.1.617.2 variant from “variant of interest” to “variant of concern”.

Under the current Council Recommendation on the temporary restriction on non-essential travel into the EU, member states can temporarily limit the categories of essential travellers that can travel to the EU where the epidemiological situation worsens quickly and where a high incidence of variants of concern of the virus is detected. 

The Council recommendation covers all member states (except Ireland), as well as the four non-EU states that have joined the Schengen area: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. For the purpose of the travel restriction, these countries are covered in a similar way as the member states.

The latest information on the rules applying to entry from non-EU countries as communicated by member states are available on the Re-open EU website.

More information

Press release: Coronavirus: Commission proposes to ease restrictions on non-essential travel to the EU while addressing variants through new ‘emergency brake' mechanism, 3 May 2021

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control threat assessment brief: Emergence of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617 variants in India and situation in the EU/EEA, 11 May 2021

Travel during the coronavirus pandemic

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'I'm finally here': Greece formally opens to tourists

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Tourists eat at the Monastiraki district, as the country's tourism season officially opens, in Athens, Greece May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
Tourists visit the ancient temple of Hephaestus, as the country's tourism season officially opens, in Athens, Greece May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Greece formally opened to visitors on Saturday (15 May), kicking off a summer season it hopes will resurrect its vital tourism industry battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

After months of lockdown restrictions, Greece also opened its museums this week, including the Acropolis museum, home to renowned sculptures from Greek antiquity.

"I feel really alive and good because it has been such a hard and long year because of COVID," said Victoria Sanchez, a 22-year-old student on holiday from the Czech Republic.

"I feel again alive," she said, as she strolled near the Roman Agora in downtown Athens.

As of Saturday, foreign tourists will be allowed in Greece if they have been vaccinated or can show negative COVID-19 test results. Travel between regions, including to the islands, will also be allowed for those with negative tests or vaccinations.

"Greece is offering what people need," Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis tweeted. "Calm and care-free moments on the road towards normality."

Tourists in Athens were elated.

"I'm finally here," said Rebecca, a tourist in Athens from Florida, who declined to give her last name. "I've been waiting two years - two years with the COVID."

Greece has been rolling out vaccines to its islands and hopes to vaccinate most of them by the end of June. The government says vaccines and rapid testing, as well as warmer weather allowing outdoor activities, mean visitors can travel safely.

As the pandemic brought international travel to a halt in 2020, Greece suffered its worst year for tourism on record, with 7 million visitors compared with a record 33 million in 2019. Tourist revenues tumbled to 4 billion euros ($4.9 billion) from 18 billion euros.

This year, it is aiming for 40% of 2019 levels.

On the island of Mykonos, one flight was given a water salute upon landing. Four islands in the south Aegean, including Mykonos, received 32 international flights on Saturday from countries including Sweden, Germany and Qatar.

Corfu, in the Ionian sea, welcomed visitors from Germany and France.

"We are so happy. I'm happy to be here," said Pierre-Olivier Garcia, soon after arriving on the island.

Greeks also welcomed the lifting of lockdown measures, with scores of people leaving for the islands or holiday homes on the mainland on Saturday.

"The first weekend of freedom," Alpha TV proclaimed during a broadcast from the busy port of Piraeus.

Greece fared better than much of Europe during the first wave of the pandemic, but rising infections later in 2020 forced it to impose several lockdowns to protect its struggling health system.

A country of 11 million, it has recorded 373,881 infections and 11,322 deaths.

($1 = 0.8237 euros)

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Italian study shows COVID-19 infections, deaths plummeting after jabs

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COVID-19 infections in adults of all ages fell by 80% five weeks after a first dose of Pfizer (PFE.N), Moderna (MRNA.O) or AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccine, according to Italian research published on Saturday (15 May).

The first such study by a European Union country on the real-world impact of its immunisation campaign was carried out by Italy's National Institute of Health (ISS) and the Ministry of Health on 13.7 million people vaccinated nationwide.

Scientists started studying data from the day Italy's vaccination campaign began, on Dec. 27 2020, until May 3 2021.

The analysis showed that the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, hospitalisation, and death decreased progressively after the first two weeks following the initial vaccination.

"As of 35 days after the first dose, there is an 80% reduction in infections, 90% reduction in hospitalisations, and 95% reduction in deaths," the ISS said, adding that the same pattern was seen in both men and women regardless of age.

"This data confirms the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign and the need to achieve high coverage across the population quickly to end the emergency," ISS president Silvio Brusaferro said in the statement.

Among the nearly 14 million people included in the Italian study, 95% of those who had taken Pfizer and Moderna had completed the vaccine cycle, while none of those given AstraZeneca had received a second dose.

Up until now, Italy has been following the makers' recommendations, giving a second dose of Pfizer three weeks after the first, a second dose of Moderna after a four week gap and a second dose of AstraZeneca after a 12 week gap.

As of Saturday morning, some 8.3 million Italians, or 14% of the population, were completely vaccinated, while around 10 million people had received a first jab.

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