A protester holding up a pro-democracy sign in Brussels, Belgium. | Photo: Randy Colas/Unsplash

Internal Threats to EU’s External Democracy Support in Times of a Pandemic – Can the New EU Council Conclusions on Democracy still Kick-off?

In the course of the worldwide outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, governments in Europe and across the world have called for states of emergency and restricted individual freedoms of their citizens in order to #FlattenTheCurve. While many citizens support the governmental initiatives, concerns about their implications on the state of democracy are growing stronger. Some fear that the coronavirus crisis will end in a crisis of democracy. Worldwide, democratic standards have been challenged long before the pandemic started. First analyses show that the current health crisis speeds this tendency up. In particular, the erosion of civic freedoms for the sake of handling the global health crisis appears to accelerate. While most governmental measures seem to be appropriate, others provide the impression that the coronavirus crisis is used to further erode internal checks and balances. Just recently, the European Union (EU) has adopted new Council Conclusions on Democracy aiming to address this global tendency. While they mainly address the external dimension, internal threats to democracy are not to be neglected. What value has such a strategy in times of a global pandemic?

Troublesome world: Erosion of democratic standards worldwide

The previous EU Council Conclusions on Democracy were adopted in 2009. Since then, a growing tendency of restricting civic space, the rise of populist movements and a “third wave of autocratization” has become the new reality. While the world is still more democratic today, 111 out of 196 countries face severe civic space restrictions. The erosion of democratic standards is mainly manifested through weakening civil liberties and democratic institutions by elected officials.

The 2019 Council Conclusions on Democracy, adopted on 14 October 2019, aim at addressing the new political environment by including new priority areas and promoting a fast, flexible and innovative response strategy. Does this new EU policy have any chance to be implemented, when globally the coronavirus crisis seems to play into the hands of “strong leaders”?

The EU Council Conclusions on Democracy

The EU Council Conclusions on Democracy acknowledge the challenging environment. In particular, they address the undermining of democratic processes, low levels of trust in politics, shrinking spaces for civil society, human rights violations and electoral manipulations with the help of online technologies. They also commit the EU institutions and member states to use more risk-oriented (financing of political and issue-based campaigning and support to political parties), and value-driven (strengthening pluralistic and inclusive democracy, independent media, the rule of law, accountability and democratic integrity) approaches to face these negative developments.

As such, the document provides a good starting point for shaping the EU’s future role as a normative actor on democracy. It is remarkable that the new strategy on democracy can be read as a cross-cutting document, with clear references to other EU strategies, such as the 2019 Council Conclusions on securing free and fair elections in Europe, a document that clearly addresses challenges to democracy inside the EU.

Other than legal acts, EU Council Conclusions have a symbolic value as they reflect political positions and commitments. Thus, it is now important to ensure that the new strategy on democracy remains not only symbolic, but that the commitments are translated into action for all the upcoming EU initiatives and actions. There are two main challenges which have only increased in importance due to the coronavirus crisis: 1) the uncertainty about the EU budget negotiations, and 2) non-democratic tendencies within the EU’s own member states which undermine its credibility as a democracy supporter.

The EU budget negotiations and the coronavirus crisis

The EU multi-annual financial framework (MFF) 2021 – 2027, which sets out the EU budget priorities for the next seven years, is currently being negotiated between the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council. The budget negotiations are an important momentum to determine necessary actions and priorities. In the MFF, the financial portfolios are allocated and thus are the policy priorities over the next seven years. It also re-negotiates the contributions between net contributors and recipients.

At this moment, we can only guess how the pandemic will impact the EU budget negotiations. The prospects are rather bleak. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Brexit left uncertainties about the future of the EU budget, as the United Kingdom was one of the main net-contributing countries. How the loss of the United Kingdom to the overall EU budget will be compensated, was not yet clear. Yet, it further intensifies the imbalance between net contributors and recipients. With nearly all EU member states facing a (partial) lock-down and a pause of public life and economies, it is now less likely than before that any EU member state will be able to fill this economic gap.

Most likely, we will be confronted with a much tighter EU budget for the next seven years and a focus on key priority areas only. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made clear that the upcoming EU budget will be “at the heart of our efforts” to fight the coronavirus crisis. It is unclear how many financial resources might be left for supporting democracy when the economy is in crisis, but past experiences make the prospects look rather gloomy.

Challenges to democracy inside the EU

The erosion of independence of the Polish judiciary and Hungary’s flouting of democratic standards pose undeniable threats to democracy. Nevertheless, Ursula von der Leyen’s successful election as President of the EU Commission depended on their votes. Questions about the rule of law in those countries did not seem to be in the focus of her campaign and seemed to be rather considered as disturbing.

Even though it didn’t take long for Frans Timmermans, Commission Vice-President, responsible for the “European Green Deal”, and former Vice-President for the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights (2014 – 2019), to reassure that the Article 7 proceedings against Poland and Hungary and the fight for rule of law in Europe would not stop after handing over the portfolio, it got relatively calm on this topic after the new Cabinet began work.

The first non-democratic country in the EU: Hungary

That the explosiveness of this unaddressed vacuum further continued to evolve, might not be that surprising. Already before the start of the coronavirus crisis in Europe, Hungary developed into the first non-democratic EU country. As civic and political rights deteriorated over the last years, V-Dem  now categorizes Hungary as an electoral authoritarian regime. The categorization is based on the continuously diminished independence of the media, civil society, academic freedom, and civic liberties.

The situation further deteriorated when the parliament empowered the government on March 30to rule by decree indefinitely. The government can now suspend certain laws and implement others without parliamentary oversight. Moreover, the parliament passed further restrictions on freedom of speech, as now the distribution of so-called fake news, rumors or any other information that goes against protective governmental measures is punishable with up to five years of prison. Additionally, any violation against quarantine and self- isolation is punishable with a prison sentence as well.

Another worrisome case: Poland and the amendment to the electoral law

In a fast-track, chaotic early morning parliamentary session, the Polish PiS party proposed a last-minute amendment to the electoral code in addition to a bill aiming at shielding the economy from the coronavirus crisis. The amendment introduces postal voting for the elderly, people in quarantine and in self-isolation. This is critical, as any amendments to the electoral code six months before the election are against the constitution. The presidential elections are scheduled for May 2020.

The move by PiS can be seen as a strategic move to secure their presidency, as their candidate is heading the polls and their main electorate is 60 plus. So far, the Polish government sticks to the schedule.

Elections during the coronavirus crisis

Holding elections during a pandemic is highly problematic, as the campaigning environment is already marked by severe restrictions, which brings opposition parties a clear disadvantage in terms of reaching out to citizens. Furthermore, neither domestic nor international election observers will be able to monitor the electoral process, partly because freedom of assembly is restricted and partly because the OSCE/ODIHR has paused all its election observation activities during the pandemic.

Finally, no government should risk the health of its population. Even with postal voting, as in the case of Poland or recently Bavaria, the distribution of material and the counting of votes needs to be done by citizens, and thus, increases the chance of further distribution of the virus.

The consequences and what could be done

The EU’s credibility and strength in supporting democracy abroad can only be as strong as their efforts to credibly address internal threats. The coronavirus crisis seriously affects the EU’s ability to address internal democracy challenges. As long as the European Union is a conglomerate of 27 member states, there will always be differences and challenges to overcome. Whether the new EU Council Conclusions will  depends very much on how openly and frankly the EU addresses those challenges and whether it takes a clear stance against democratic backsliding.

The EU has not yet shown a clear strategy and functioning mechanisms of how to deal with a non-democratic EU member state. The pace of restrictive measures in the face of COVID-19 makes this gap even more visible. However, during this pandemic, credibility of its actions and an open stance for democracy is urgently needed by the EU. Domestic opposition groups are more than ever restricted in their ability to monitor and to openly confront governments. Even more if elections are held.

The respect for the fundamental values of the EU as stipulated in the Lisbon Treaty (Article 2 and Article 21), by which each member state commits to human rights, democracy, equality, the rule of law and fundamental rights, should never be at issue. The EU Council Conclusions on Democracy are also based on those foundations. If any EU member state violates those values, there is a clear need for consequences that go beyond rhetorical actions. Those concrete actions could be the suspension of voting rights in the EU Council or of any financial allocations to the respective member state as discussed in the MFF negotiations, or adding conditionality to the access to financial help during the corona pandemic.

Especially during this pandemic, EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen is well advised to take a more pro-active stance on democracy through not only defining, but also shaping the democracy support agenda inside and outside of the European Union. A first possible action could be to convince the Polish government to postpone the May presidential elections to a later date when a free and fair electoral environment is guaranteed and to speed up the Article 7 proceedings against Hungary.

Rebecca Wagner

Rebecca Wagner

Rebecca Wagner ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“ der HSFK. Sie arbeitet an einem Promotionsvorhaben zu Wahlen in Zeiten von Einschränkungen der zivilen und politischen Handlungsspielräume.

Rebecca Wagner

Rebecca Wagner ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“ der HSFK. Sie arbeitet an einem Promotionsvorhaben zu Wahlen in Zeiten von Einschränkungen der zivilen und politischen Handlungsspielräume.

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