Rule of law and democracy suffer hit across the EU in year of COVID pandemic 

  • Rule of law has worsened in 2020 compared to 2019, in part due to COVID which exacerbated existing problems
  • Governments with authoritarian tendencies in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia have used the pandemic as an excuse to weaken democratic standards further
  • Some countries with serious democratic failings like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania are seeing reforms that could potentially result in improvements to judicial independence, anti-corruption, and the freedoms of campaigners and citizens’ groups
  • Threats to media freedom and free speech, attacks on journalists and activists, repression of protests and free speech, and limitations on access to public interest information are alarming in many EU countries, including some with traditionally strong democratic records such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain

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.

Media freedom and the freedoms of campaigners and citizens’ groups to voice their concerns have taken a particular hit across many of the countries analysed.

Linda Ravo, Senior Adviser to the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), said:

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

Political 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.

Restrictions 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.

Legal 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.

The 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.

The COVID-19 pandemic 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 and Spain.

Another 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 Spain.

The report also covers corruption, checks and balances and measures taken during the COVID pandemic.

What the EU must do

The 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.

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