Covid-19 and democracy: what does the future hold for post-pandemic Europe?

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This Europe Day, 9 May 2021, has a distinctive twist. At a time when Europe has been weakened by chaotic management of the covid-19 health crisis, Eurosceptic currents have cause for celebration.

Long before the start of the pandemic, the European Union was unable to counteract the emergence of political forces with an agenda resolutely opposed to the EU’s fundamental values. The Hungarian and Polish peoples have already paid the price. Dissent is discredited, human rights defenders are hindered, free media are silenced: Europeans’ fundamental rights are directly threatened.

Everywhere, doubt is growing about the European Union’s ability to provide a concerted response to the collective problems it faces. With Article 7 of the European Treaty, the tools exist. But their concrete implementation is still pending. It is now up to the governments resolutely committed to the construction of Europe to complete these procedures with determination, in order to stem the tide of ultra-conservative and nationalist regression. Respect for the founding principles of the EU must not be optional for any of its members; everyone must work to ensure this. The responsibility cannot rest on solely on the countries holding the rotating presidency of the European Council. It is now up to all the leaders of a weakened Europe to react and to show their dedication to the core values of Europe: dignity, freedom, equality, and solidarity.

Read FIDH’s proposals in the article published on Sunday 9 May 2021 in Euractiv (in French), authored by Elena Crespi, head of the FIDH’s Western Europe desk, and Vitor Graça, president of FIDH’s member organisation in Portugal: Liga Portuguesa dos Direitos Humanos – Civitas.

Covid-19 and democracy: what does the future hold for post-pandemic Europe?

What are Europeans dreaming of this 9 May 2021? Of getting back their freedoms and a life free from masks, social distancing, and a devastating death toll, no doubt. There are many, too, who long for a return to the original spirit of the European Union. More than a year of chaotic management of the pandemic has left the people of Europe exhausted and prone to distrust. But this is the symptom of a more long standing illness that has been consuming the Union. This Europe Day, as we prepare for post-pandemic life, a course of treatment must be elaborated to address the ills that threaten Europe’s very foundations. This opportunity must be seized, for we may not get another one.

From bungling the delivery of masks to the blunders of the vaccination campaign, European leaders are facing a profound crisis of democratic legitimacy. As Covid-19 prompts a retreat behind national borders and tests member states’ solidarity, Eurosceptic forces rejoice in the growing distrust of European institutions. Certain countries, such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or, more recently, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland, have long made the erosion of the EU’s founding principles an essential facet of their political agenda. The pandemic has infused these agendas with heightened zeal. In disrupting the balance of powers, targeting independent civil society and muzzling the media, their intention is to shatter the shared bedrock on which the European project is built.

This disturbing illiberal tide is not new. For over a decade now, human rights watchdogs have been sounding the alarm about the authoritarian shift of the Hungarian prime minister. Yet the changes to the constitution and the constraints placed on the legislature and judiciary were not, it seems, enough to rouse the European Commission to action. While attacks against independent media and universities and the infamous law on NGOs — which imposed measures reminiscent of the world’s worst dictatorships — elicited criticism from the European Commission, and in some cases condemnation by the Court of Justice of the EU, they did not provoke the expected reaction of firm censure. It took the emergence of another anti-European regime in Poland to prompt some sort of political response.

Alas, the European Union has been too timid to prevent the student from overtaking the teacher. With hesitant EU institutions hiding behind legalistic quibbles and political restraint, the Polish government has been free to undermine democratic checks and balances without so much as a flinch from Brussels. The recent forced resignation of the country’s human rights commissioner — one of the last remaining independent checks on overweening power — was but the latest blow to Polish democracy. Polish women’s already limited access to abortion and other sexual and reproductive rights has also been restricted as never before: with the Law and Justice party in power, ultra-conservative voices have had the upper hand over rights and freedoms. The Polish parliament is considering a proposal for Poland to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a binding treaty combating gender-based violence. This is but the latest assault against what Polish conservatives have branded "gender ideology" — a concept that has legitimised unprecedented attacks against gender minorities, including LGBTI+ people. Aided by a compliant judiciary, the government has progressively abandoned universally accepted standards for the protection of human rights. All those who oppose this scheme are ostracised — from judges and journalists to NGOs, vulnerable individuals, and anyone who contests the party’s heteronormative vision of society.

And yet, the Treaty on European Union has a powerful tool at its disposal to counter such attacks: Article 7. Designed to inhibit the most serious assaults by a member state against the founding principles of the Union, this "weapon" had never been used until December 2017, when the Commission first triggered it against Poland. By doing so, the Commission took responsibility for safeguarding Europe’s shared values, before handing the matter over to the Council. It was then Hungary’s turn to be targeted at the initiative of the European Parliament in September 2018. But proceedings have since stalled: neither of the two dissident heads of state has yet been held accountable for sabotaging the European project nor for their attacks on civil liberties. This poisonous model, left unchecked, has begun to tempt other EU countries both East and West.

Despite the 14 months of technical paralysis inflicted by the pandemic, it is now up to the leaders of a weakened Europe to react. Germany, in which so many expectations were vested, has sidestepped the issue. Slovenia, which takes up the EU Council’s presidency on 1 July, seems to have its hands full handling breaches of the rule of law at home. But Portugal, as the outgoing holder of the presidency, could still leave a legacy by moving forward with the hearings under Article 7.1 TEU and getting one step closer to holding the Hungarian and Polish governments to account for violating EU norms. This would set a powerful example for its successors, including France in 2022, which should step up as a leader by championing EU values both at home and on the regional level, ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

But it is not the sole responsibility of the member states holding the Council’s rotating presidency to show political courage. Compliance with the Union’s core principles is not optional; each and every member has a duty to protect and uphold them. The peoples of Europe are exhausted by a long struggle with the deadliest epidemic in the continent’s contemporary history and face serious threats to their rights and freedoms. Only by firmly upholding these principles as the cornerstones of the EU, can Europe’s foundations be restored post-pandemic.

On this 9 May, 61 years after the European project was built on the still-smouldering embers of the Second World War, the peoples of the old continent have the right to dream, to hope that the democratic principles of equality, liberty, human dignity, and respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights will not be among pandemic’s casualties. They have the right to expect that these shared, hard-won values will emerge from this ordeal with renewed vigour and be reaffirmed as the crucial foundations upon which the Europe of tomorrow will thrive.

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