Taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation in the EU: China, Russia and Hungary

The year 2020 has now mainly been shaped by the COVID-19, which has rattled the whole world and the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight. Most of the EU member states have installed heavy measures against the spread of the virus and closed their borders. 

Given the dire situation especially in member states like Italy and Spain and the fear that has spread over Europe, there is a suitable breeding ground for disinformation and blame. Some of the EU-27 have been blamed for not providing help in the crisis and countries have looked for outside sources of aid. China and Russia have been more than happy to step in and offer their helping hands along with some information. Within the EU the already grave situation with Hungary has worsened as the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán managed to get the Hungarian Parliament to declare an emergency law. It seems that a global crisis is a perfect opportunity to make some strategical steps. 

China and Russia: Fake news and help “with love”

The EU member states hit hardest by the COVID-19 have been calling for help from the other members. Criticism and disinformation about states not helping each other has been spreading over social media even though the EU members are providing help for others. For example, Germany has taken patients from France and Northern Italy while Austria and France have sent masks to Italy. However, as all of us are tackling the pandemic, the help is maybe not always as substantial as the receivers hope for. 
In times like this, there is room for fake news and disinformation as people are scared and more easily influenced. China and Russia have understood this and are taking advantage of this. The two have been spreading online disinformation. The most common narrative seems to be that the EU is not as well prepared as the Kremlin and that China and Russia are the only ones providing a proper strategy against the virus. The information is yet to reach the wider audience, but it has been seen in the more friendly-minded audiences in Italy, Spain and Greece. 
While any disinformation is alarming, it is perhaps even more alarming when it is targeted heavily against groups already under some peoples’ radars, namely migrants and minorities who are now being labelled as the cause for the pandemic. The fake news is moreover feeding the populist parties by trying to undermine the credibility of the EU. Naturally both China and Russia have rejected the accusations.
Outside the online platforms, both countries have been actively providing aid for the EU member states. Italy has felt that the other EU countries are not giving enough and has accepted aid from Russia. On March 22nd, Russian military planes filled with medical military specialist and testing devices under the banner of “from Russia with Love”. Some Italians are now, however, concerned about the presence of Russian military personnel in Italy and unfortunately, apparently 80 per cent of the equipment was useless. 
A question remains how much China and Russia are expecting to get paid from their aid. 

Hungary: The first dictatorship in Europe?

Hungary has for a long time been under the scrutiny of the EU. The country further alarmed the union on Monday March 30th when the Hungarian Parliament ruled an emergency law under which there is no limit for the state of the emergency, PM Orbán can make decrees without the Parliament (which is suspended), and there is no need for elections. Perhaps most worrying of all is that individuals can face up to seven years in jail, if they voice views that are seen as untrue or distorted. The new rules can only be lifted by the two-third support of the Parliament and a signature from the President. 
The news of this led to widespread name of the first European dictatorship as Orbán can now easily make his own decrees and stick to power for who knows how long. The country’s state of democracy has already been decreasing with an alarming rate and does not seem to be slowing down. 
The question remains what can the EU do? The treaties do not include a clause for kicking out a member. The EU has tried to investigate the situation both in Hungary and Poland through article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) to determine whether the two are violating the rule of law. The worst-case scenario for the two would be loss of voice in the EU. However, as the decisions in the Council call for unanimity, it is unlikely that much can be done as Poland and Hungary will have each other’s backs if anything too harsh is suggested.  
The outrage of Hungarian actions let to an outcry over the EU. On the April 1st, Finland together the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, France, Sweden, Germany and Denmark issued a statement on the COVID-19 and EU’s common values saying that it is natural that the members take emergency measures during the situation but that there is a grave concern that these measures lead to violations of the rule of law principle, democracy and basic rights of citizens. The 13 member states said that the measures should be appropriate, temporary and they should be in accordance with international law. The measures should not restrict the freedom of speech or press. The 13 moreover agreed to support the European Commission’s initiative to monitor the emergency actions in the member states. The statement, however, left out one crucial part: it did not mention Hungary. 
It remains to be seen where this will lead but for now it is easy to say that Viktor Orbán took the full advantage of the COVID-19 situation and made the rest of the EU very worried.

Live together, die alone? No!

We are in this together. It is natural that every country is first taking care of what’s happening within its own borders and of its own citizens. Nonetheless, this global pandemic needs a global response and the EU needs to show that we are united and helping one another. As we are. No one is left alone to die. 
A response will be needed for Hungary. We cannot allow this to happen on our European soil and within the EU that is built upon values such as respect of the rule of law and democracy. 
We also need to actively combat disinformation. Tech-companies are already taking part in this and trying to eliminate false content. There is also an individual level of responsibility, for so far most fake news originate from EU citizens. If you are not an expert on the matter, do not provide disinformation that can harm your fellow citizens. There are those who will believe you and it can be costly. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Disinformation can cost lives.”

TEXT Peppi Heinikainen
PHOTO Matthieu Rondel, EC – Audiovisual Service

The author has a BA degree in European Studies from the Maastricht University and a MA degree in International Peace and Security from King’s College London. The author has specialised in the EU defence and security policies, peace processes and negotiations, and Russian politics.