Hungary summoned the ambassadors of four Nordic countries -Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway- on Monday over their countries' criticism of a controversial law that empowers Prime Minister Viktor Orban to act by decree against the novel coronavirus.
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Sunday that he would summon the diplomats as Hungary "wanted no pitiful hypocritical tutelage" and reiterated Budapest would go its own way.
The law, which authorises Orban to bypass parliament in taking action to contain the virus and mitigate its after-effects, has provoked international criticism.
"When countries use the COVID-19 situation for actions that undermine fundamental rights, we insist on drawing attention to that," Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod told Reuters.
"Of course, the problem is not only related to COVID-19, but the situation has worsened because the Hungarians have taken a number of measures which among other things risk undermining press freedom," Kofod said.
He added that there must be consequences - including financial ones - if fundamental values are not respected.
A letter caused the incident
During Monday's meeting, the Norwegian foreign ministry told Reuters that Hungarian State Secretary Peter Sztaray said he believed a 6 March letter by the five Nordic foreign ministers misrepresented the essence and formalities with regard to the Hungarian corona emergency act.
"The Nordic ambassadors explained and reiterated the concern of the Nordic countries concerning the Hungarian corona emergency act, particularly the unlimited in time emergency powers and the provisions concerning the criminalisation of incorrect information, putting journalists under additional stress," a Norwegian foreign ministry spokeswoman said.
The Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights body, warned Hungary about its democratic backsliding and issues over freedom of expression in a 24 March letter by Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric.
The foreign ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden wrote to Buric on 6 May saying they "share the concerns expressed in that letter. Even in an emergency situation the rule of law must prevail."
At odds with the EU institutions
Orban has been at odds with European Union institutions since taking power in 2010, going head to head over economic policies, alleged corruption, immigration and his ever-expanding influence over all walks of life.
Orban has told Buric that the law does not give him unlimited powers and can be withdrawn by parliament - where his Fidesz party holds a two-thirds majority - at any time.
"If you cannot help us in the current crisis, please at the very least refrain from blocking our defence effort," Orban wrote to the secretary general Buric. The vast government-controlled or loyal press repeated that phrase for weeks.
The ambassadors of Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway attended Monday's meeting. Iceland's mission to Hungary is based in Vienna.
Feedom House, the United States democracy watchdog, said in its latest report that Hungary is no longer a democracy.
Emergency powers could be withdrawn
On Thursday, Viktor Orban's chief of staff said Hungary could retract the emergency powers obtained to fight the coronavirus in late June, depending on the evolution of the pandemic.
Under the legislation, anybody deemed to be deliberately spreading false information that could upset people or hinder the fight against the novel coronavirus could face up to five years in jail.
"The government could give up its special emergency rights towards the end of June unless the situation (with the epidemic) changes," Orban's chief of staff Gergely Gulyas said.