(CNN) – Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives across Europe to the coronavirus, and many more have suffered long-term health problems after contracting the disease. They are not the only victims of the pandemic.
The democratic norms have also been seriously impacted by a year of restrictions, and now experts fear that power hungry politicians they may be reluctant to give up their near-total authority once the crisis is over.
In France, for example, Parliament approved a law that extends the country’s state of emergency until the end of September. The law allows President Emmanuel Macron to introduce a health pass that shows whether a person was vaccinated against covid-19 or not and to establish curfews throughout the country.
Some of Macron’s liberal allies considered the move controversial. After all, instructing citizens to be home at a certain time and to track their medical information is hardly consistent with liberal traditions in France.
During the course of his presidency, Macron has been accused of moving away from the liberal centrist platform under which he was elected in 2017, particularly taking a tougher line on Islam and immigration to compete with his main political rival from extreme right, Marine Le Pen.
Not long ago, the president of France extolled the values of democracy. When speak to the United States Congress in 2018, he paid tribute to the ‘sanctuary of democracy’ to which he was addressing and reminded the world of the words ‘stamped on the flags of French revolutionaries,’Live free or die. Go free or die. Ironic, given the president’s apparent enthusiasm for ordering his citizens to stop the spread of the deadly virus.
Macron’s weakened relationship with democracy is not limited to tracking who they injected and forcing people to stay indoors. Throughout the pandemic, the president reduced what role his Parliament plays in scrutinizing his policy announcements.
“Under the new state of emergency, the role of Parliament in France is more limited than before,” said Joelle Grogan, a professor of public law in the UK and the European Union at the University of Middlesex. “Governments and administrations are not required to send copies of the orders they adopt to parliament,” he explained.
Democracy Reporting International (DRI) recently published a comprehensive study on how European Union governments had responded in the context of democracy and the rule of law. France was listed as a country of “great concern” for the extent to which its government has subverted legal standards.
However, it is not the only nation in the European Union that has regressed in terms of democracy.
Spain, the only one that does not cause concern
In Austria, Slovenia, Belgium and Lithuania, to name a few, there is great concern that governments have misused existing laws to restrict the freedom of citizens. In fact, of the 27 member states of the EU, DRI only classified Spain as a country of “no concern” with regard to the legal supervision or by the Parliament of the measures against covid-19.
The most egregious example is probably Hungary, where the government passed legislation allowing it to rule by decree without judicial review.
In Cyprus and the Czech Republic, courts stated that they had no jurisdiction over coronavirus measures. This significantly slowed down moves to safeguard any government overshoot attempts.
A central concern expressed by the DRI report is that few European countries have a clear “exit plan” to end states of emergency and return to normal forms of governance.
This is a real concern in the case of France. Phillippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London, notes that in recent years France has issued numerous states of emergency in response to terrorist attacks. Many of the measures relating to personal liberty that were defined at that time have been maintained.
“I would bet that many of the illiberal measures that have come into effect under (the pandemic) covid, such as the health pass and the threats of curfews, will remain in force or will be seen again,” he said. “Politicians are very good at taking authority, but not so good at giving it back.”
Some are particularly concerned that Macron, who faces elections next year, may find it advantageous to maintain a tight grip on power.
“The president of France has more power on paper than the president of the United States. It can control the police, the army, all domestic politics, all foreign policy. He even appoints his own prime minister, ”Marlière said. “This, combined with someone seeking re-election and already moving to the right on issues like Islam without real oversight, is very concerning,” he said.
this problem is not new
Furthermore, more worryingly, the DRI report states that only five member states of the European Union – the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Portugal – have adequate exit strategies for a return to normalcy.
“It is much easier to rule by decree than to rule within limits, so it is obvious why leaders would want to hold on to power,” Grogan said. He also noted that undermining the rule of law has been a problem within the EU for some time.
In recent years, Hungary and Poland had abused the rule of law to such an extent that Article 7 of the EU treaty, which, if approved by all member states, would restrict both nations’ voting rights with the EU and would restrict access to EU money, both have been fired upon.
In recent years, both Hungary and Poland have abused the rule of law to such an extent that Article 7 of the EU treaty has been activated against both that, if approved by all member states, would restrict the voting rights of both nations in the bloc and access to EU money.
The power of Hungary and Poland
The problem is that both Hungary and Poland can veto actions against the other, which leaves the European Union a bit inoperative. What happens next is the big problem. We can talk about legal mechanisms and laws. But ultimately, we need political consensus, “adds Grogan.
Last summer, Brussels tried to force Hungary and Poland into alignment through a mechanism in the bloc’s long-term budget, but the move was cut short at the last minute and they eventually agreed on an alternate measure to allow the bills to be passed. recovery funds against covid-19 of the block.
That was the case in two member states. What happens when there are many more is a real unknown for the European Union.
‘The European Union is fundamentally a legal structure. It exists to enforce mutual rights between states and citizens, ”said Grogan. But it would be remiss to ignore the complexity behind it. As Brexit demonstrated, it is a group of states that decide to be part of the club. Brexit showed us that you can leave, but the problem is if someone does not accept the values and does not want to leave, it is legally impossible to remove a state.
What will happen to democracy in Europe?
Nobody knows where this ends. The European Union is unlikely to fall apart, as many have predicted, but it is possible that Eurosceptics in the bloc could force changes that undermine the structure. And if you were looking for a way to destabilize the EU, flouting the rule of law would be a good starting point.
“As is usual in emergencies, we are seeing a shift of power to the executive with oversight by parliaments, the judiciary and other bodies that are increasingly weak,” said Jakub Jaraczewski, DRI’s research coordinator.
The European Union could work towards better legal oversight, either through the Commission, the Fundamental Rights Agency or even through the Court of Justice. But that would require political will from the leaders of the member states for the central European Union to take control of the political areas they prefer to keep in reserve.
The role of the European Union in defending democracy
European Union law is sometimes said to be a complicated muddle of narrow political interests cloaked under a legal cloak. Those narrow political interests have had a greater impact on the bloc’s direction of travel than the ideals that supposedly unite 27 very different nations.
For the better part of a decade, the discussion by member states about precisely what Europe should be and how it should respond to crises has been the most difficult aspect for the European Union to navigate. Disregard for the law, however, is a more fundamental headache than disagreements over immigration or how money should be spent.
When politics return to something close to normal, Brussels could find itself with more than Poland and Hungary in the punishment corner. And if these recent criminals decide that their new powers matter more to them than keeping their European Union neighbors happy, there is very little that the bloc’s leaders can do to stop the consequences that destabilize the entire bloc.