21st Apr 2021

Covid-19: Democracy and rule of law under pressure in EU

  • Catalonia's election went ahead this year under Covid, but the new report warns that parliaments across Europe are fast-tracking bills with reduced scrutiny (Photo: Fotomovimiento)

Some EU member states have bolstered their existing authoritarian tendencies, as leaders strengthened their grip on power under the cover of Covid-19 curbs, according to the EU-focused human rights watchdog organisation, Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

Their report this month singles out Hungary, Poland and Slovenia as the member states most prone to take advantage of Covid-19 responses in order to thwart democracy and weaken the rule of law.

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If Hungary's government used the country's Covid-19 regulations to cloak abuses, hinder oversight and access to vaccine documentation for medical professionals, Poland limited freedom of information and assembly to impact protests against the controversial abortion law.

Following the report, the European Commission's top rule-of-law official, Vera Jourova, came out in a parliamentary debate to warn against sliding media freedoms, in addition to other democratic principles.

Most recently, Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban took an opposition radio station off air. In Poland the government decided a new media tax that threatens the industry's independence.

And Slovenia's prime minister is waging an online and offline battle against critical journalists in his country, accusing them of lying and spreading fake news.

The report, co-sponsored by 14 human rights groups, warns that media freedoms are at risk, and limitations to public information present, even in developed democracies such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The report mentions the limited access of Spanish media during early government safety briefings in March 2020, but also how activists and artists in Spain have been prosecuted for publishing satirical cartoons, burning a flag or making a provocative use of religious symbols during a protest.

Pressure on media companies has also been observed in Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Croatia.

Fast-tracking bills

The accelerated law-making process enabled by Covid-19 restrictions also makes it difficult for citizens to take part in democratic public debate.

Such speeding-up, which lacks transparency and does not allow for consultations with the public or NGOs, has also occurred in well-established democracies such as Ireland, Germany and Sweden, the report says.

Fast-tracking bills through parliament, together with limits on free speech, judicial transparency, limits to media reporting, disproportionate restrictions on the right to protest happened in established democracies too.

Yet it is the youngest of democracies, the ex-communist states in central and eastern Europe that are at peril.

The report highlights that in addition to the governments with authoritarian tendencies in Budapest and Warsaw which are systematically weakening the judiciary and civil society, Bulgaria and Romania, with long standing issues regarding rule of law and independence of the judicial system, have been shaken further.

New rules on court fees in Bulgaria and poor legal aid systems in Romania make it difficult to access justice and get a fair trial.

Even though some EU member states have used the pandemic as a pretext to erode democratic standards, the process is not irreversible.

"There's a thin line between protecting our democracies and protecting public health. Both national and EU institutions need to make sure that all member states respect the law and that our democracies come out stronger not weaker after the Covid-19 pandemic ends", Radu Mihail, member of Romanian Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, told EUobserver.

Civil Liberties Union for Europe recommends that continuing reforms as well as digitalising judicial proceedings are solutions to improve the situation in countries where judicial systems have long been subjected to pressure.

The report concludes that the EU needs to play a crucial role in protecting the rule of law and democracy in all member states. The EU needs to make sure that clear recommendations are made to each member state and that those breaking the rule of law are sanctioned.

Author bio

Cristian Gherasim is a freelance journalist contributing to EUobserver, Euronews, EU Reporter, Katoikos, Von Mises Institute, and bne IntelliNews, with a particular focus on European and regional affairs.


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