Democracy and the rule of law have regressed across a large number of European countries in 2020, according to a new, wide-ranging report involving 14 national membersi across the EU of the human rights watchdog, the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), in the largest exercise of this kind by an NGO network for 2020 to date.
freedom and the freedoms of campaigners
and citizens’ groups to voice their concerns have
taken a particular hit across many of the countries analysed.
Senior Adviser to the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties),
“Many EU leaders have compromised the health of their democracies this year. While the pandemic has undoubtedly played a part in the weakening of the rule of law, several governments have placed disproportionate restrictions on civic space, media freedom and participation across many EU countries, including some with traditionally strong democratic records. Countries such as Hungary, Poland or Slovenia have just used the pandemic to strengthen their hold on power and limit criticism of the government.
“Journalists and campaigners and citizens’ groups have had a very difficult year trying to do their job of keeping the public informed about how governments and corporations are using their powers. This is particularly disturbing during a crisis when it’s crucial that governments listen to citizens’ concerns and answer to voters about how they use public resources.”
Across the EU
pressure on the media has
increased or is still at worrying levels in Poland,
Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Some
politicians and their allies in the media routinely attack
and harass critical journalists. Slovenia is a
particularly striking example, with journalists
routinely threatened, women journalists labelled as
‘prostitutes’, and journalists
applying self-censorship as a means to protect
themselves against such attacks. There is an increasingly
hostile environment for the media in Bulgaria,
Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Croatia. However, Spain,
Italy and the Czech Republic have seen improvements in the
protection of whistleblowers.
on freedom of
association have continued, and have even worsened for
example in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Ireland and
Slovenia, while Romania is the only country where there
has been some progress.
Disruptions to assembly and the arbitrary
detentions of protesters are an increasingly worrying
trend in many countries including France,
Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, Spain, and Slovenia.
harassment is also on the rise. Activists in Poland
and Spain have been on the receiving end of more lawsuits, with
Spaniards enduring abusive lawsuits called Strategic
Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs. Politicians
and corporations issue SLAPPs as a legal weapon to silence
and harass civil society groups or journalists from criticising their
activities. Over the past years, journalists, activists and
artists have also been on the receiving end of this kind of
lawsuit including in Croatia, France, Italy,
Ireland and Slovenia.
independence of the judicial system has
weakened further in countries where there were
already serious deficiencies, like Bulgaria and Poland. But there
have also been debates on the integrity of the judiciary and
the transparency of appointments in Ireland and Spain. A
heavy backlog of cases still plagues many
countries, which affects the length of
proceedings, and hinders courts from delivering
justice within a reasonable time. This is
because governments do not provide the judiciary with
enough resources, with Bulgaria, Italy, Ireland,
Poland, Romania and Slovakia as noteworthy examples.
has played an important part in weakening democracy across the
continent. People’s freedoms, including the right
to peaceful protest, have been curtailed in a bid to
stop the spread of the virus and law-making has often gone
through fast-track procedures.
This has limited oversight of the executive
and restricted the possibility of civil society to get involved
in the political process. These practices have also
happened in countries with strong traditions of
democratic participation, such as Germany, Ireland or Sweden.
But the worst changes happened in countries with longer standing problems with democracy and the rule of law, such as Bulgaria and Romania, and countries ruled by governments with authoritarian tendencies like Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. Governments in those countries used the pandemic as an excuse to weaken democratic standards further.
Justice, fairness, and independence in countries
like the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia could
improve with reforms already underway, or under discussion. The
push for digitalisation of justice is a positive trend
that may help improve the situation in countries where
the justice system has long been under strain such as Italy
positive note is that some EU countries are actively trying
to counter hate
speech and disinformation through
campaigns, such as the Czech Republic. However some
countries are going too far and limiting legitimate free
speech, like Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Romania and
report also covers corruption, checks and
measures taken during the COVID
What the EU must do
EU has a crucial role to play in protecting the
rule of law and democracy. The European Commission has taken
the important step of auditing countries’
democratic record annually which this report
feeds into. Nevertheless, Liberties urges the
Commission to expand the scope of the audit, make
sure it contains clear recommendations to individual
countries, applies sanctions to countries that are damaging
the rule of law, and takes them to
court whenever necessary. The EU should also ensure
human rights and democracy groups have sufficient funding to carry
out their activities.