70 years ago, on 9 May 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman laid the foundation for creating the European Union. “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan”, he said. “It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” In the years that followed, economic integration, trust, support and a strong vision have created a close community of states that we can now refer to as the European Union. Today, Schuman’s idea of a solidarity through economic interdependence is more valid than ever.
Remembering the Schuman declaration, we, the Young Professional Advisor group of United Europe e.V. (please find more about the YPAs here), contribute ideas of how the EU can overcome the current crisis and pave the way towards a stronger, more united Europe. For one week, we shed light on seven fields of action that are vital to the EU’s future. As a group of 36 young Europeans from all over the continent, we propose actions to help the EU navigate through the current crisis. In the spirit of the Schuman declaration, we believe that solidarity is the fabric that holds Europe together.
Our first article will touch upon the topic of democracy. With a worrying decline in trust for democracy, a flexible system which has survived many crises, will COVID-19 lead to disillusionment with European democracy? We are convinced that successful governance of the crisis by member states can lead to a democratic comeback.
Democracies in Europe are going through an unprecedented phase. Basic freedoms have been suspended to serve a higher goal: preserving citizens’ life and avoiding the collapse of health systems, both under threat today. However, the pandemic cannot be an excuse to suspend more rights than necessary, disregard legislative chambers or commit power abuse.
A number of EU states agreed that the measures should be “limited to what is strictly necessary” and avoid restrictions to “freedom of expression and freedom of the press”, e.g. Slovenia, Romania, and Hungary.
We see with worry that some member states use the state of emergency to advance political agendas or consolidate power. Here, Hungary is one example. Prime Minister Viktor Orban used the emergency decree to amass unprecedented amounts of power. Thanks to his government’s emergency measures, the PM can now rule by decree indefinitely, a new step forward in Hungary’s process of democratic deconsolidation. A recent report from NGO Freedom House does not consider Hungary a democracy anymore. The EU cannot let Hungary and other states drift into authoritarianism. Democracy cannot be suspended within the EU, whatever matter the situation.
We are facing a test of our political systems and the Union. Lots of citizens today see liberal democracies with much more suspicion and disillusionment than 30 years ago, when the EU took great leaps forward in its integration process. In order to avoid challenges to democratic systems on the continent, the EU’s governance of the pandemic and its social consequences need to be exemplary. The measures taken are as diverse as the European continent is. However, except for a few cases, they fall within our common values of rule of law, democratic governance, transparency, respect for human rights, tolerance, and more.
The authors would like to stress the importance that the EU upholds the aforementioned values throughout the crisis. China, the first country to suffer the effects of Covid-19, paved the way for lockdowns and social distancing, yet European countries have largely implemented these in accordance with these values. This is particularly relevant when we consider leveraging the use of technology to curb the spread of the virus. Not only China but also countries such as Singapore and South Korea collected personal data from citizens and implemented contract tracing technology at the expense of privacy.
The EU needs to strike a balance between democratic privacy laws and the effective use of data in curbing Covid-19. The technologies used should not make us choose between the false trade-off between health and privacy. We can have both, ensuring that if our health is monitored and our biometric data collected, this is done with utmost respect for privacy, and governments do not misuse the data for political gain or other malicious objectives.
We urge European member states to set for themselves high standards of transparency when reporting cases of Covid-19 and to be proactive in guaranteeing that citizens are well informed on the measures taken. Disinformation, another underlying threat to our democracies, makes this more challenging. No matter where it comes from – foreign powers or the Union itself – disinformation polarises us in a time when we need unity of action. Therefore, we believe that the EU should compel big technology companies to take responsibility for the content on their platforms and to act when necessary: identifying fake news, removing hate speech and setting standards for political information, while preserving democratic values of pluralism, freedom of speech and the rule of law.
Democracy is a process, with ample room for optimisation. Whether at a national or European level, we must guarantee that coming policies are legitimate and respond to citizens’ interests, now that we face the pandemic and after it goes away. This is particularly important in areas that citizens traditionally feel unable to influence. Potential reforms for a common taxation system, a coordinated fiscal policy, or a common defence, for example, need thorough discussion and the consideration of interests that might appear conflicting at first. Democracy is the best system to achieve just that.
The EU is, after all, a relatively recent invention compared to its member states, the origins of which can often be traced back post-Roman times. It will take time for all of us to create a democracy at the European level. This is why the EU needs all efforts possible to reach its citizens and involve them in decision-making. It could also foster the creation of robust EU-wide media conveying the European view of the world. This would go a long way in forging European identities, which would compliment but not substitute national ones.
Given the numerous challenges we have identified, the signatories believe that the EU should not be complacent about the state of democracy in the Union. The pandemic has been yet another wake up call on real threats to our democratic and liberal systems. Counting with the participation of citizens, the EU should consider bold and imaginative reforms, such as the ones laid out above. Hopefully then, our democracies would not deconsolidate, but increase their substance and value.
Authors: Albert Guasch, Kalina Trendafilova, Dyria Alloussi, Raiko Puustusma, Dinand Drankier, Justinas Lingevicius, Mihkel Kaevats, Karl Luis Neumann, Silja Raunio, Anna Penninger, Armando Guçe, Mihály Szabó, Andranik Hovhannisyan, Raphael Kohler, Jens-Daniel Florian, Elif Dilmen, Eshgin Tanriverdi, Robert Grecu