The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a great burden on our society. Measures imposed by governments across the EU have severely restricted citizens’ rights. Limiting the number of people who can gather in closed spaces is a reasonable and legitimate means to contain the pandemic. But a blanket ban on demonstrations, as is the case in Hungary for example, is disproportionate and illegal.
Authoritarian leaders in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are exploiting the pandemic to grab more power. They have used the state of emergency to fast-track new laws without consulting citizens’ groups. Critical activists and journalists are intimidated, smeared and harassed. Public funds intended to support the health system have been diverted by corrupt politicians to increase their wealth. These and other worrying developments are covered in the EU-wide report drafted jointly by Liberties and 14 national member and partner organizations.
Using citizens’ rights to steer the democratic ship in the right direction
In countries with strong democratic institutions, governments are more likely to take decisions that are in the public interest. Public consultations and open dialogue mean that lawmakers listen to a wide range of stakeholders. Media pluralism and freedom of information ensure greater transparency. Independent watchdogs and citizens’ groups make sure that governments stick to the law. This is particularly important in times of crisis, when government decisions have the potential to save or place at risk thousands of lives.
Freedom of information and our right to come together and form associations make it harder for governments to impose ineffective and disproportionate measures. In Croatia, civil rights groups informed the public about the government’s secret intentions to monitor citizens’ phones. After the story was shared in the media, the government abandoned its plans.
In some countries, however, governments have deliberately weakened democracy over the years. As a result, there are insufficient safeguards in place to prevent those in power to exploit the pandemic for their own benefits. And that’s where the EU must step in.
What the EU should do to preserve our rights
The EU has a whole set of tools it can use to prevent governments from undermining the rule of law. The European Commission’s decision to carry out an annual audit of member states’ democratic records starting with 2020 is a step in the right direction. But it will not stop populist authoritarians from undermining democracy, or effectively prevent others from going down the same road. To make sure that governments address the shortcomings identified in the audit, more concrete measures are needed. Here are three recommendations.
Stay in the loop.
Third, the EU should provide better support to independent watchdogs, such as rights and democracy groups. The Commission must ensure that funding made available within the framework of the new Justice, Rights and Values fund is disbursed so as to easily get to grassroots organizations active at local and national level. The Commission and the other EU institutions must also prioritise, including within the rule of law annual audit and the annual reports on fundamental rights, actions to better monitor and protect rights defenders and civil society groups from attacks across the EU.
About the report
The report EU 2020: Demanding on Democracy covers 14 EU countries. It is the most in depth exercise of this kind by an NGO network covering developments in 2020. The report was prepared by Liberties together with its member and partner organisations, to feed this year’s consultation by the European Commission on the state of the rule of law in the EU.
Previously on Liberties