Saturday

24th Oct 2020

Analysis

How much will coronavirus hurt European democracy?

  • At the European parliament's session on 10 March on coronavirus. Critics must be listened to on emergency powers (Photo: European Parliament)

Democracy has also been infected by the coronavirus.

All normal, everyday features of a healthy democracy are suffering from the pandemic, as checks on governments weaken due to the all-out fightback.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Lawmakers are missing from workplaces across Europe, due to social distancing (Photo: European Parliament)

Elections are being postponed across Europe, parliaments' work has been streamlined, gone online or closed, some courts only deal with urgent cases, freedom of assembly has been suspended, and journalists are forced to work from home rather than quizzing the politicians face-to-face they are reporting on.

Concerns have been raised over measures planned by the Hungarian government that would make rule by decree indefinite under the state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic.

As public life is pushed back all over Europe to slow the spread of the virus, worries are on the rise over what extent the measures, if not proportionate and time-limited, can infringe fundamental rights and the rule of law.

Michal Simecka, a Slovak MEP from the liberal Renew group told EUobserver it is "legitimate, proportionate and understandable that governments are invoking emergency measures, when every hour counts".

But Simecka warned of two possible threats in the longer term.

"It is a perfect pretext for a politicians to centralise power," he said.

The other threat is whether the measures will be rolled back in time as the outbreak lets up.

"These kind of extraordinary powers tend to be sticky. When politicians have these powers they might be reluctant to go back to the messy, longer democratic processes. We must be vigilant," Simecka said - in a call from Bratislava.

He added that "however difficult it is, politicians should strive to the extent possible to keep parliaments going" after the balance of power has shifted towards the executive as governments scramble to fight the virus.

Not 'everything goes'

Currently around 15 EU member states have introduced a state of emergency, while other countries rolled out strict measures but have not resorted to declare an emergency.

Poland's government of the Law and Justice party (PiS) is reluctant to call for a state of emergency, because presidential elections scheduled for 10 May would need to be postponed.

Support for incumbent president Andrzej Duda, who hails from PiS, has been on the rise since the outbreak, while opposition candidates cannot campaign.

Experts on rule of law and democracy warn that the efforts to mitigate the outbreak and the need to protect democratic norms should not be pitted against each other.

They argue that transparent governments are better placed to deal with the crisis.

But the nervousness about the potential of the new measures is rife.

"We are seeing a number of measures dismantling the checks and balances that guarantee the continuity of democracy," Sergio Carrera of the Centre for European Policy Studies told EUobserver.

Carrera said the current crisis touches upon so many aspects of citizens' rights - freedom of assembly, privacy, right to move within the country and the EU, a right to family life - that the policy responses' effects on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights need to be closely followed, so that they don't go too far.

Crises, whether regarding terrorism, migration or health, don't mean that "everything goes," he warned.

"One can agree that it is a very difficult issue for governments to deal with, but I believe it is also a question of legitimacy not to panic, and just work with what we have and the checks and balances we have," he said.

It is also important that societies don't lose critical views and voices on "how the governments are acting in the name of the coronavirus", Carrera added. That eventually benefits the governments themselves.

Carrera said "all countries that have declared a state of emergency deserve close monitoring."

Part of the monitoring should be done by the EU commission where EU competencies are involved, especially on the right to free movement across the passport-free Schengen area.

While the commission, in the early stages of the crisis, sounded sceptical about the necessity and effectiveness of closing borders, with the guidelines issued last week, it gave a "sort of quasi green light for introducing border controls," Carrera argued.

"The measures member states are taking would have not been possible without such a positive reaction from public opinion," Uwe Puetter of the Europa-Universitat Flensburg told EUobserver.

He said he expected usual party politics to become more dominant in the next weeks.

Eurocrisis reloaded

Puetter also warned that a discussions over burden-sharing and the economic consequences of the virus crisis could reignite debates from during the eurocrisis, which helped give rise to eurosceptic forces across Europe.

EU leaders will hold a videoconference on Thursday (26 March) to discuss the economic responses.

Fiscally-conservative countries have already warned that burden-sharing will remain conditional and proportionate, despite Spain's prime minister calling for a new "Marshall Plan", and Italy's PM arguing for common eurobonds to be issued.

Puetter said he was concerned about the proposed measures in Hungary - and that due to the coronavirus crisis management "there is no pushback from EU, which can be dangerous".

The commission has so far said it is monitoring developments in Hungary but declined to comment on the specific proposals.

EU justice commissioner Didider Reyders on Wednesday (25 March), in a sign that the executive is watching, launched a consultation for the commission's new annual rule of law report on the 27 countries, to be published in the second half of the year.

But mostly it is down to member states to keep each other in line.

"I really hope each European country each can find a way, take necessary measures and have parliament do its controlling task," Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok said on Tuesday (24 March) after a videoconference with other EU minsters.

"Here in the Netherlands, parliament agreed to have meetings just once a week, and only on corona-related subjects. […] That's the workable way we found, to let the government do the necessary difficult task and at the same time let the parliament do its controlling tasks," he said.

"I realise these are challenging times [...] but of course we should all find ways to let democracy do its work," Blok said.

Cybercrime rises during coronavirus pandemic

Cybercrime and cyberattacks have increased due to the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, the World Health Organization, hospitals and research centres are being targeted by organised cybercriminals - searching for information, intelligence, and systems access.

Hungary's Orban seeks indefinite power in virus bill

In a draft bill Hungary's ruling government seeks special powers uncontrolled by parliament, election, referendums, courts for an indefinite amount of time, rights' groups worry. The bill could be vote on within eight days.

Privacy issues arise as governments track virus

Governments are attempting to track the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe using mobile phone data. When it comes to data protection, exceptions are allowed in times of crisis but must be limited in time and scope, critics warn.

Coronavirus threat to EU farm seasonal workers

The restrictive measures taken by many member states to respond to the coronavirus outbreak make it difficult for EU farmers and fishermen to continue their daily work - which is disrupting the agri-food sector across the continent.

EU leaders at odds on virus-hit economy

Italy, with the backing of France and Spain, call for substantial EU economic help, others want to see how long the outbreak will last before committing to big plans.

News in Brief

  1. UK scientists fear Brexit blow to joint EU research
  2. Greek migrant camp lockdown extended
  3. Lukashenko and 14 others in EU crosshairs
  4. EU imposes sanctions over 2015 Bundestag cyberattack
  5. Italy reignites Mont Blanc border dispute with France
  6. Commission to press Croatia on migrant 'abuse' at border
  7. Belarus opposition awarded 2020 Sakharov Prize
  8. Belgium's foreign minister in intensive care for Covid-19

EU tries to avoid lockdowns as global death toll reaches 1m

Several member states are putting forward restrictive Covid-19-related measures to try to control the surge of numbers of coronavirus cases, trying to avoid a second lockdown. Meanwhile, the global death toll from the novel coronavirus has reached one million.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersUN Secretary General to meet with Nordic Council on COVID-19
  3. UNESDAWell-designed Deposit Return Schemes can help reach Single-Use Plastics Directive targets
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector
  6. UNESDAReducing packaging waste – a huge opportunity for circularity

Latest News

  1. South Caucasus death toll much worse than feared
  2. Polish court effectively bans legal abortions
  3. MEPs urge EU to be ready to dump disputed energy treaty
  4. EU commission on defensive over 'revolving doors'
  5. Why German presidency is wrong on rule of law
  6. Nato and EU silent on Turkey, despite Armenia's appeal
  7. EU tells UK to decide on Brexit as deal 'within reach'
  8. EU farming deal attacked by Green groups

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us