Editorial: A turbulent year for European democracy

, by Guillermo Íñiguez, Madelaine Pitt

Editorial: A turbulent year for European democracy

Since last year’s edition of our Democracy Under Pressure feature, back in February 2020, the world has witnessed one or two changes.

The global pandemic, already crouching at the starting blocks as we penned last year’s editorial, needs no introduction, but has given rise to countless debates on the topic of democracy. Some groups of conspiracy theorists - overwhelmingly confined to the margins - have used it as a buzzword to lash out at the reduction of individual freedoms during successive lockdowns, while a vast majority of Europe’s citizens have respected the rules with due regard for the health and safety of others. Some governments have used it as cover for a power grab - in Hungary and the UK, for instance, emergency executive powers were granted to allow the government to rush legislation through parliament with an at times unjustifiable lack of parliamentary scrutiny.

A second event of the past year intimately connected to the debate on democracy in Europe was the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, USA. A first wave of mass protests occurring in many major cities across the US, in Europe, and beyond has been followed by a ripple of heightened public consciousness about the issue of racism and discriminatory violence. Tragically, many European governments have shown themselves to be readier to sweep the issue under a politically convenient rug, rather than engage in a difficult - but long overdue and desperately needed - reflection about the deep-rooted racism so prevalent in European societies today.

After protestors in Bristol in South-West England toppled the statue of a slave trader into the harbour last summer, the government provided for heftier punishment for damage to memorials, as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill it controversially voted through a few weeks ago, which our Current Affairs Editor Isabelle Walker explained in detail in her article on democracy and protest. Just a few weeks later, the government produced a report - with cherry-picked facts, and citing academics who had not worked on the report - claiming that the UK was free from institutional racism, labelled a “historic denial”.

France, meanwhile, has tried to make the filming of police officers while on duty a crime, as mentioned by Théo Boucart, editor of our French sister publication, in his article assessing assaults to the freedom of speech in France, in which he also points to the extent that members of the government, not too dissimilarly to the far-right party Rassemblement National, embrace racist ideologies. This appalling lack of willingness by governments to work towards a more equal society is very fundamentally an issue of democracy, because it reinforces the structural advantages of some citizens while perpetuating the suffering of others.

The broken record of Belarus

Other issues, however, seem to have stood still. 15 years ago, the very first Democracy Under Pressure campaign was launched by JEF Europe - check out our interview with the founder of the campaign by our EU Institutions and Policy Editor Elizabeth Sadusky - as a reaction to and protest of Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime. Back then, Belarus was widely deemed ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ - sadly, it is still described in exactly the same way today. The blatant failure to hold free and fair elections - to the extent that the term ‘elections’ is somewhat of a misnomer - led to mass protests which are still ongoing today. The protestors were awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in recognition of their extreme bravery and dedication. It’s ironic that the regime is one of the few political features which have remained relatively stable since the beginning of the Democracy Under Pressure campaign.

Back then, there were widespread grounds for optimism. The Charter of Fundamental Rights, which consolidated many of the Union’s fundamental rights law and administrative practice, had been ‘solemnly proclaimed’ in December 2000. The 2004 enlargement, which brought several post-Communist states into the EU, was viewed as a turning point: the Copenhagen Criteria, which had imposed a series of obligations on acceding states, would align such states with what was expected of contemporary democracies, and EU membership would consolidate said practices. And despite the Austrian crisis in the year 2000, the wave of extremism unleashed by the 2008 crisis seemed like a distant threat in a Union in which Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder, and Tony Blair – three of the main exponents of the political and economic model which arguably unleashed said crisis – still held office.

(Un)chartered Territory in Human Rights

That the current landscape could not be more different would be an absurd understatement. Luckily, some things have evolved more than Lukashenko’s bitter grip on power. Since the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, European integration has undergone a slow yet radical transition, from a merely economic union to a quasi-political one. The rule of law, in its many manifestations – an independent judiciary, the right to a fair trial, equality before the law, impartial public administrations – has played a fundamental role in said constitutional mutation. The Charter of Fundamental Rights, consolidated as primary EU law through the Treaty of Lisbon, is perhaps the best manifestation of the rule of law’s central place within the European project.

Yet throughout the past decade, we have witnessed a transformation in the EU institutions’ approach to rule of law backsliding within the Member States. An inverse relationship, in fact, can be observed between the institutions’ rhetoric, which has become increasingly pompous and grandiloquent, and its tangible (in)action, which the Ursula von der Leyen Commission has exacerbated. Different political interests can help explain the institutions’ unwillingness to intervene. The Council is heavily constrained by the unanimity rule, which requires every Member State on board and has allowed Poland or Hungary to trade their political support against a lack of penalisation for their flagrant transgressions of a fistful of the Charter’s most important stipulations. This explains recent political developments, such as the failure to trigger Article 7 TEU, the largely useless rule of law conditionality mechanism, and the institutions’ inaction as the Polish judiciary gets dismantled. As Charlemagne points out in The Economist, Europe, more than a ‘Hamiltonian’ moment, is witnessing a ‘Calhounian’ one, in which a Member State government is telling its courts to disapply EU law.

It’s no time for Eastern Europe-bashing

It is, for our taste, a little too frequent that “democratic issues within the EU” are chalked down to the main suspects of Hungary and Poland. Certainly, these countries continue to cause the EU any number of headaches, and present difficulties and dangers for their citizens. The aforementioned dismantling of the judiciary, the constant assault on the right to abortion in Poland, and its proposed media tax, which would disproportionately impact small, independent media outlets, make up the landscape in Poland. Similarly, our Podcast Editor Kim Mannion’s interview with Budapest-based Euronews journalist Adam Magyar shows the vast lengths to which Hungary will go to deny information to journalists, and, by extension, the public at large.

Yet democratic issues stretch far beyond Hungarian and Polish borders. Our interview with Kristina Dimova, founder of the youth media platform Slovo111 which aims to provide objective information on politics to young people, flags the often-forgotten Bulgaria, hovering at a catastrophic 111th place (hence the publication’s name) in the World Press Rankings - the worst in the EU.

Furthermore, as we have already highlighted, challenges to democracy do not only occur in the East: aside from the issues we have already referred to in France and the UK, Germany placed its far-right party Alternative for Germany under observation on grounds of suspected extremism, before the order was struck down by a regional court. This is no trifle: the AfD currently leads the opposition in the Bundestag.

International trouble

Some issues are not confined to one particular country at all, and instead affect us wherever we live in the EU and beyond. Our Social Fabric and Equal Footing Editor Elsie Haldane points to the extent to which gender-based discrimation and violence is also a question of democracy, an issue brought freshly into the spotlight by the tragic murder of Sarah Everard as she walked home in London.

Another inherently international challenge to democracy was highlighted by our Digital Affairs Editor Inés Flor García, who outlined the power big tech has over us - in a world where an algorithm can analyse 300 likes and know us better than a spouse, this knowledge can be harnessed for the use of targeted political advertising - and the power of social media in spreading information, whether this information is true or not. Commissioner Margaret Vestager’s protracted and highly mediatised battles with Google, Facebook and Apple throw the need for EU member states to work together in the face of increasingly concentrated corporate power into sharp relief.

Similarly, our Newsletter Officer Devin Sean Martin made a strong case that tax is also a question of democracy, and tax evasion undermines it: particularly for the same big tech firms who collect your data for commercial ends, with the very biggest companies being the most able to find ways of shuttling their revenue streams abroad.

A (fairly) dark year for democracy in Europe?

This year’s edition of The New Federalist’s Democracy Under Pressure feature has once again highlighted that challenges to democracy can occur throughout the entire continent and in almost every sphere of our lives.

Hungary and Poland might have become the standard bearers for a democratic backsliding which has unleashed the forces integration was meant to appease – national sovereignty, populism, and aggressive nationalism. Our coverage, however, shows it would be wrong to assume that the rest of the continent is immune to these dangerous phenomena, or to the cross-border challenges to democracy which affect us wherever we live. With structural inequalities and power grabs magnified by the pandemic, and violent murders bringing race- and gender-based violence into the spotlight, it has been a (fairly) dark year for democracy.

Recent political developments, however, can provide ground for optimism: Fidesz’s departure from the EPP may put an end to its impunity, a Netherlands-led coalition could bring infringement proceedings against Poland, and the European Parliament has persisted in its effort to hold the EU institutions accountable. On the other hand, this is not enough: if real change is to take place. the Commission and the Council must follow suit. 15 years after the launch of JEF Europe’s campaign, European democracy remains very much under pressure, both in the EU and beyond. And “Europe’s last dictatorship”, despite the protestors’ admirable efforts, shows no sign of going anywhere.

We would like to thank the entire editorial team and all the contributing writers for their hard work on this feature.

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