EU Watch

Governments Shrug Off Democratic Oversight: EU Rule of Law Report By 37 NGOs

Liberties Rule Of Law Report 2024

by Eleanor Brooks

In 2023, many of us worry that society is becoming more divided and less equal, and we have strong opinions about the choices government makes on our behalf, such as how to treat migrants and refugees, tackle climate crisis, or respond to global conflicts. As elected representatives, we rely on politicians to use the power and resources of their office to address our concerns.

The strength of democracy is determined not by the outcome of governments’ decisions, but the democratic environment in which decisions are made. Liberties' fifth annual rule of law report evaluates whether governments respect the rule of law structures, such as independent media, free courts, and citizen rights groups, that hold them accountable. The most in-depth 'shadow reporting' exercise by an independent civil liberties network covering 19 Member States, our report identifies Europe-wide trends and provides the EU with recommendations to reverse democracy’s downward trajectory.

In our Rule of Law Report 2024, our member organisations report that their governments continued to weaken democratic oversight in three broad trends.

Icing out the public and civil society in their decision-making

There was a strong uptick in restrictions on peaceful protest increased in 2023 (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary and Sweden), often selectively applied to pro-Palestine and climate protests. The use of surveillance technology at protests persisted (Belgium, France, and the Netherlands) and civil society organisations and human rights defenders were still subject to attacks in almost all countries observed.

Governments continued to pass laws in an accelerated fashion (Bulgaria, Greece and Sweden, Slovakia), largely bypassing input put from citizens groups and resulting in poorer quality legislation. When public consultations with civil society did take place, our members reported that they were symbolic in nature (Bulgaria, Hungary, Ireland or Croatia) or faced deadlines too short to be meaningful (Germany, Slovakia and Slovenia).

Patchy transparency and public scrutiny hampered

Similar to previous years, restrictions on media freedom made it harder for the public to access non-biased and critical reporting and politicians continued their attempts to control the public narrative.

In virtually all countries covered by the report, strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) were used to silence journalists and concentrated media ownership remained prevalent. These threats to media pluralism were compounded by threats to the independence of public service media and the opaque allocation of state advertising, the latter particularly acute in Hungary and Greece, where government-friendly outlets benefited disproportionately.

According to our members, governments transposed the EU’s whistleblower protection directive half-heartedly and there was little improvement in the transparency of decision-making.

Resistance to curtailments of power

Governments displayed a lack of commitment to have their power curtailed, either through neglect, political meddling or blatant resistance. Independent authorities who provide democratic accountability, such as National Human Rights Institutions, aren’t given the resources to function effectively, and efforts to curtail corruption were overall lacklustre or produced unsatisfactory results.

France’s enactment of pension reforms is a brazen example of the misuse of emergency measures to bypass parliamentary oversight, as reported in numerous countries,

Governments continued practices that threaten the independence of courts, including controlling the selection of judges and disciplinary measures. In Belgium and Greece, political authorities refused to comply with validly rendered court decisions in asylum and border control cases.

Occasional breaches can snowball into permanent systemic damage

This points to an overarching trend of governments shrugging off democratic oversight, posing varying degrees of threat to democracy in different Member States.

In well-established democracies, such as France, Germany and Belgium, these violations don’t pose an existential threat to democracy. It is nonetheless worrying as these incidents could be consolidated if extremist parties enter government, leading to a systemic issue. Italy and Sweden, where far-right parties have come to power, demonstrate that despite greater immunity, countries with established democracies are not immune to rule of law decay.

In countries less resistant to democratic backsliding, such as Greece, the accumulation of persistent breaches across different areas risks snowballing into a systemic issue that undermines the rule of law. Greece’s high concentration of media ownership coupled with political interference is a major factor in the poor implementation of anti-corruption rules.

Finally, in countries such as Hungary, politicians are intentionally dismantling democratic structures in order to immobilise the rule of law and cement their grip on power. This strategy, now modelled by Slovakia, creates deeply-rooted democratic rot that is (almost) impossible to repair. Although Hungary enacted legislative improvements following pressure from the EU, due to institutional capture these reforms are largely cosmetic and failed to create genuine change. Similarly, in Poland, despite the election government committed to restoring democratic values, reversing the damage while respecting rule of law principles is proving challenging.

Our recommendations to the EU

Once authoritarian tendencies become entrenched, they are extremely difficult to reverse. The EU has a range of tools at its disposal and should use them more readily before rule of law violations take root. If violations are blatant and deliberate, infringement proceedings should be initiated without discussion, interim measures requested, and systemic infringement proceedings should follow multiple rule of law violations. Civil society should be given more support in its role fostering rule of law dialogue.

The Commission’s annual report should include targeted and specific recommendations for Member States to address rule of law shortcomings, linked to enforcement measures, and we recommend evaluating civic space as a standalone topic and broadening the scope of human rights violations.

About the report

This is our fifth annual report on the state of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights across the EU. The report covers 19 EU countries and is the most in depth analysis of its kind produced by an NGO network. The report was prepared by Liberties together with 37 organisations from around Europe: a combination of our own members and a number of external partners. As in previous years, the publication serves two purposes: a source of information we contribute to the European Commission for its annual audit on the rule of law in the EU; a source of independent analysis for journalists, researchers and others interested in the state of democracy in the EU.


Download the full report here.

Read related articles

Trend Analysis: Restrictions on Peaceful Protest Intensified

Trend Analysis: Human Rights Violations Continue Against People From Marginalised Groups

Trend Analysis: Court Packing Puts The Judicial Protection of Citizens’ Rights in Danger

Country reports 2024

The Report presents findings from 19 EU Member States by 37 human rights organizations, namely:

League of Human Rights (Belgium),

Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (Bulgaria),

Centre for Peace Studies, The Croatian Platform for International Citizen Solidarity (Croatia),

League of Human Rights, Glopolis (Czech Republic),

Human Rights Center (Estonia),

Vox Public (France),

the Society for Civil Rights (GFF), FragDenStaat, LobbyControl (Germany), t

he Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (Hungary),

the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Inclusion Ireland, Community Law and Mediation, Justice for Shane, Mercy Law Resource Centre, Irish Penal Reform Trust, The National Union of Journalists, Outhouse, Irish Traveller Movement, Mental Health Reform (Ireland),

Antigone Association, Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD), A Buon Diritto Onlus,Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa, La Società della Ragione (Italy),

The Latvian Centre for Human Rights (Latvia),

Human Rights Monitoring Institute (Lithuania),

NJCM, Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Free Press Unlimited, Transparency International Nederlands (Netherlands),

the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland),

Apador-CH (Romania),

Via Iuris (Slovakia),

Peace Institute (Slovenia),

Civil Rights Defenders, International Commission of Jurists (Sweden).

The Greece report was authored by independent expert Eleni Takou.

See previous rule of law reports

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