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2020.03.30 08:00

How much will coronavirus hurt European democracy?

Eszter Zalan, euobserver2020.03.30 08:00

Democracy has also been infected by the coronavirus. All normal, everyday features of a healthy democracy are suffering from the pandemic, as checks on governments weaken due to the all-out fightback.

Elections are being postponed across Europe, parliaments' work has been streamlined, gone online or closed, some courts only deal with urgent cases, freedom of assembly has been suspended, and journalists are forced to work from home rather than quizzing the politicians face-to-face they are reporting on.

Read more: Coronavirus: Lithuanian opposition calls for military to take over crisis management

Concerns have been raised over measures planned by the Hungarian government that would make rule by decree indefinite under the state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic.

As public life is pushed back all over Europe to slow the spread of the virus, worries are on the rise over what extent the measures, if not proportionate and time-limited, can infringe fundamental rights and the rule of law.

Michal Šimečka, a Slovak MEP from the liberal Renew group told EUobserver it is "legitimate, proportionate and understandable that governments are invoking emergency measures, when every hour counts".

But Šimečka warned of two possible threats in the longer term.

"It is a perfect pretext for a politicians to centralise power," he said. The other threat is whether the measures will be rolled back in time as the outbreak lets up.

"These kind of extraordinary powers tend to be sticky. When politicians have these powers they might be reluctant to go back to the messy, longer democratic processes. We must be vigilant," Šimečka said - in a call from Bratislava.

He added that "however difficult it is, politicians should strive to the extent possible to keep parliaments going" after the balance of power has shifted towards the executive as governments scramble to fight the virus.

Not 'everything goes'

Currently around 15 EU member states have introduced a state of emergency, while other countries rolled out strict measures but have not resorted to declare an emergency.

Poland's government of the Law and Justice party (PiS) is reluctant to call for a state of emergency, because presidential elections scheduled for May 10 would need to be postponed.

Support for incumbent president Andrzej Duda, who hails from PiS, has been on the rise since the outbreak, while opposition candidates cannot campaign.

Experts on rule of law and democracy warn that the efforts to mitigate the outbreak and the need to protect democratic norms should not be pitted against each other.

They argue that transparent governments are better placed to deal with the crisis. But the nervousness about the potential of the new measures is rife.

"We are seeing a number of measures dismantling the checks and balances that guarantee the continuity of democracy," Sergio Carrera of the Centre for European Policy Studies told EUobserver.

Carrera said the current crisis touches upon so many aspects of citizens' rights – freedom of assembly, privacy, right to move within the country and the EU, a right to family life – that the policy responses' effects on democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights need to be closely followed, so that they don't go too far.

Crises, whether regarding terrorism, migration or health, don't mean that "everything goes," he warned.

"One can agree that it is a very difficult issue for governments to deal with, but I believe it is also a question of legitimacy not to panic, and just work with what we have and the checks and balances we have," he said.

It is also important that societies don't lose critical views and voices on "how the governments are acting in the name of the coronavirus", Carrera added. That eventually benefits the governments themselves.

Carrera said "all countries that have declared a state of emergency deserve close monitoring".

Read more: Lithuania's new quarantine rules lead to ‘chaos’ and fights

Part of the monitoring should be done by the EU commission where EU competencies are involved, especially on the right to free movement across the passport-free Schengen area.

While the commission, in the early stages of the crisis, sounded sceptical about the necessity and effectiveness of closing borders, with the guidelines issued last week, it gave a "sort of quasi green light for introducing border controls," Carrera argued.

"The measures member states are taking would have not been possible without such a positive reaction from public opinion," Uwe Puetter of the Europa-Universität Flensburg told EUobserver.

He said he expected usual party politics to become more dominant in the next weeks.

Eurocrisis reloaded

Puetter also warned that a discussions over burden-sharing and the economic consequences of the virus crisis could reignite debates from during the eurocrisis, which helped give rise to eurosceptic forces across Europe.

EU leaders will hold a videoconference on Marcb 26 to discuss the economic responses.

Fiscally-conservative countries have already warned that burden-sharing will remain conditional and proportionate, despite Spain's prime minister calling for a new "Marshall Plan," and Italy's PM arguing for common eurobonds to be issued.

Puetter said he was concerned about the proposed measures in Hungary – and that due to the coronavirus crisis management "there is no pushback from EU, which can be dangerous".

The commission has so far said it is monitoring developments in Hungary but declined to comment on the specific proposals.

Read more: Coronavirus: two-thirds of Lithuanians support government action – survey

EU justice commissioner Didider Reyders on March 25, in a sign that the executive is watching, launched a consultation for the commission's new annual rule of law report on the 27 countries, to be published in the second half of the year.

But mostly it is down to member states to keep each other in line.

"I really hope each European country each can find a way, take necessary measures and have parliament do its controlling task," Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok said on March 24 after a videoconference with other EU minsters.

"Here in the Netherlands, parliament agreed to have meetings just once a week, and only on corona-related subjects. […] That's the workable way we found, to let the government do the necessary difficult task and at the same time let the parliament do its controlling tasks," he said.

"I realise these are challenging times [...] but of course we should all find ways to let democracy do its work," Blok said.

This story originally appeared on EUobserver.