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Civil Liberties Groups: European governments continued weakening democracy in 2022

In a democracy, we decide how our elected representatives use the powers and resources we’ve delegated to them. When citizens are in charge, we can demand that our leaders do what’s best for all of us. But our report shows that in 2022 governments across the EU continued to make it more difficult for citizens to get their leaders to act in their best interests.

During 2022, everyone felt the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and of the damage caused to the climate by burning fossil fuels. The cost of heating our homes and feeding our families rose so much faster than what employers pay, that many people had to choose between keeping warm and eating. Floods, fires, heat waves, storms and droughts threatened our health, water and food supplies and the safety of our homes.

This report doesn’t judge whether EU governments acted in the best interests of their citizens in choosing how to respond to these events. What the report does find is that in many EU countries during 2022, it continued to become more difficult for citizens to have a say in how we navigate the problems we face and to demand the solutions we want. Sometimes this seems to be a deliberate effort to exclude citizens from their democracies. Either by weakening the rules and organisations that make democracy work or by refusing to fix weaknesses governments have created in the past.

For democracy to work properly, citizens rely on good quality media to get informed. They need to be able to voice their concerns – whether by working through associations or coming together in protest – and governments need to be willing to listen, including by consulting their people when making new laws.

And when politicians don’t act in our best interests, for example by taking away our freedoms, spreading hatred for political gain, or taking our resources for themselves, citizens need independent mechanisms to fix the situation, like an ombudsperson or a court, which is easy to use and gives a decision quickly. These are the levers that should be in citizens’ hands in order to make democracy deliver for us as a system of governance. And in 2022, many governments continued to weaken or neglect them.

Worst offenders

As we reported in previous years, Hungary and Poland remain the worst offenders. Although the EU has triggered its newly created conditionality mechanism to withhold funds from Hungary, this has yet to produce genuine improvements on the ground. And similarly, the reforms being negotiated with Poland in exchange for release of EU COVID Recovery funds would lead to only modest improvements that don’t free judges from political control. These governments continue to implement a series of measures designed to centralise power, silence their opponents, control public opinion, and make it very difficult to lose future elections.

Although it’s too soon to tell, early signs from the new governments formed in Italy and Sweden in 2022 point to the risk that, if existing institutional checks and balances do not stay strong, ruling coalitions may turn towards authoritarianism. For example, we have already seen a sharp increase in rhetorical attacks against NGOs and the media by both of these new governments.

In contrast, developments in Slovenia since the replacement of the far-right government show that countries can rehabilitate their democracies. For example, we recorded steps to restore independence to institutions like the public broadcaster, and offer redress to citizens who were fined illegally under the previous far-right government for protesting.

General trends

Compared to previous years, we see continued problems with the health of the media, the freedom of citizens to protest or work through NGOs and the willingness of governments to listen to what people want. We also see that the rules and institutions whose job it is to make sure governments use our resources and powers for the public good continue to be starved of the money, powers and independence they need to do their job. And many governments continue to attack marginalised groups, often as a tool to distract the public from their own failure to solve the problems their citizens face.

To give a few examples:

  • Journalists reporting on matters of public interest, like corruption, found themselves harassed by bogus lawsuits in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland.
  • Several countries also used their powers to restrict the right to protest, especially in relation to people calling for action on climate change, for example in Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. In some cases, the authorities were acting on powers created to deal with the pandemic that are still in place.
  • In Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Spain, we found politicians having a say over picking, promoting and disciplining judges. We also found that the governments of Belgium, Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Poland have deprived their court systems of the resources they need to decide on cases within a reasonable time.
  • This year we have seen continued rhetorical attacks and often restrictive and punitive measures against people who migrate (in Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovenia and Spain), people from ethnic minorities (Bulgaria, France, Sweden) and LGBTIQ persons (Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland and Slovakia).

Our recommendations to the EU

The less control citizens have over their leaders, the less likely they are to solve the problems that people care about, or pick the solutions that serve our best interests. When democratic governments stop delivering what people need, people lose faith in democracy and often turn to authoritarians. European governments should realise that by failing to nurture their democracies, they pave the way for extremist politicians who will not hesitate to tear down the whole system, as seen in Hungary and Poland. Leaders of countries who say they support democracy should nurture the system that allows them to be in power.

This is why in our report we propose a range of recommendations to the EU as to how it can support and protect the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in its member states. In a nutshell, we urge the EU to:

  • Activate the conditionality mechanism in relation to Poland and set the amount of suspended funds for Hungary and Poland at a sufficiently high level to secure genuine reforms
  • Improve the way it reports on the rule of law by broadening the scope of the report to include contextual factors that have an impact on or indicate the health of the rule of law, such the existence of systemic human rights issues
  • Improve the way it monitors progress or regression by using the Commission’s annual report as the basis for structured dialogue between the institutions and national governments, to which national parliaments and civil society can contribute
  • Use all available powers to support or pressure governments to promote and enforce rule of law standards, including suspending funds to a government under the conditionality mechanism, giving funding to support journalism and civil society, infringement procedures, the Article 7 procedure, and issuing guidance
  • Ensure that initiatives that could have an impact on the rule of law are used to promote the latter to its full potential, such as policies and legislation on digitalisation of justice, disinformation, media freedom and SLAPPs
  • Address major challenges to the EU’s legitimacy and credibility, such as the Qatargate scandal

About the report

This is our fourth annual report on the state of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights across the EU. The report covers 18 EU countries and is the most in depth analysis of its kind produced by an NGO network. The report was prepared by Liberties together with 45 organisations from around Europe: a combination of our own members and a number of external partners. As in previous years, the publication serves two purposes: a source of information we contribute to the European Commission for its annual audit on the rule of law in the EU; a source of independent analysis for journalists, researchers and others interested in the state of democracy in the EU.

Resources: Download the full report here.

Source: Liberties

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