Liberal democracy is having a rough time at the moment. Checks on executive power are routinely dismissed as “undemocratic”; judges and courts are branded “enemies of the people”; and civil rights and liberties designed to protect minorities are viewed with suspicion. In countries across Europe, from Britain to Turkey, “sovereignty” is being used as justification to tinker with the existing institutions of democracy.
We had a comment sent in on our “Suggest a Debate” page from Desmond, who asked if the EU was doing enough to safeguard democracy in Europe.
In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has enacted a series of controversial reforms, most recently a new bill changing the way judges are appointed. The move has triggered mass protests, with opponents claiming it undermines judicial independence.
In Romania, earlier in 2017 hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets in the largest mass demonstrations since the fall of Communism. The demonstrations were triggered by legislation proposed by the Ministry of Justice that would have made abuse of power only criminally punishable if the sums involved exceeded 200,000 lei (€44,200). The government withdrew the bill, and the justice minister resigned.
In Hungary, the government has been courting controversy since it introduced a media law in 2010, which critics argued has undermined media freedom in the country. The government also amended the constitution in 2013 to reduce the power and independence of the Constitutional Court; and, in 2014, instituted a crackdown against foreign NGOs and civic groups, leading then-US President Barack Obama to include Hungary in a list of countries using “endless regulations and overt intimidation” against civil society.
The EU is supposed to be a club of free-market liberal democracies. In order to join, prospective members have to meet the so-called “Copenhagen criteria”, with strong and independent institutions in place to safeguard rule of law, civil rights, and democracy. But what happens if, having joined the club, the members start rolling back those reforms? As the EU’s recent tangle with Poland over judicial reforms demonstrates, there’s not much the EU can actually do. Sanctions (such as suspending Poland’s voting rights) would require unanimous approval from EU Member States, and that seems highly unlikely.
Is the EU doing enough to safeguard democracy within Europe? Are democratic institutions being eroded by governments keen to concentrate power in the executive? And, if so, is there anything that can be done to prevent this happening? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!