New Council of Europe report warns of democratic backsliding across continent

Danger that Europe’s democratic culture will not fully recover, warns CoE secretary general.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

12 May 2021

A new report says there has been a “clear and worrying degree of democratic backsliding” on the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law across Europe.

The report was compiled by the 47-nation Council of Europe, the body that seeks to champion human rights around the world.

Its secretary general Marija Pejcinovic Buric said, “In many cases, the problems we are seeing predate the Coronavirus pandemic but there is no doubt that legitimate actions taken by national authorities in response to Covid-19 have compounded the situation.”

“The danger is that our democratic culture will not fully recover.”

“Our Member States now face a choice. They can continue to permit or facilitate this democratic backsliding, or they can work together to reverse this trend, to reinforce and renew European democracy and to create an environment in which human rights and the rule of law flourish.”

“This is the right option for the 830 million people who live in the Council of Europe area.”

“Our Member States now face a choice. They can continue to permit or facilitate this democratic backsliding, or they can work together to reverse this trend, to reinforce and renew European democracy and to create an environment in which human rights and the rule of law flourish” Council of Europe secretary general Marija Pejcinovic Buric

Based on the findings of different Council of Europe bodies, including the European Court of Human Rights, the report assesses recent developments in areas including political institutions and judicial independence, freedom of expression and association, human dignity, anti-discrimination and democratic participation.

The report encourages Member States to use existing and future CoE mechanisms to address many of the challenges it identifies.

It says national authorities should recommit to CoE legal standards, including the implementation of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights.

It is not clear if this is a swipe at the UK and its legal obligations following Brexit but Leave campaigners such as Nigel Farage highlighted the importance of the UK freeing itself from having to comply with ECJ judgements.

Covid-related restrictions and measures, the report adds, “must not only be necessary and proportionate, but also limited in duration.

“National authorities should embrace democratic culture, recognising where their words, activities or legislation have diminished that culture.”

A separate report, meanwhile, claims that Victor Orbán’s government in Hungary “has employed media capture tactics to dismantle media freedom and media pluralism to an unprecedented degree in the European Union”.

The report, written by a coalition of press freedom watchdogs, said European government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have restricted journalists’ ability to report freely.

The authors said “state-led media capture as a way to undermine independent journalism was particularly acute” in Hungary, citing the example of the media council stripping independent radio station Klubradio of its licence. The authors argue that the European Commission has so far failed to act.

Elsewhere, a poll says that only 36 percent of Hungarians believe that their country is a democracy.

This is according to the Democracy Perception Index 2020, a survey by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, which measured attitudes towards democracy in 53 countries around the world. According to the survey, Hungary had the third-largest perceived democracy deficit at 42 percent - the difference between how many respondents state that their country is democratic and how many believe that democracy is important.

In Hungary, 78 percent said that democracy is important. Additionally, 57 percent said that there is “not enough democracy” in Hungary. Only Poland and Venezuela have a higher perceived democracy deficit.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claimed in a recent interview that liberal democracy “had ceased to exist” and accused the EU of not being capable of solving people’s problems.

Orbán’s Fidesz party recently left the European People’s Party and has reportedly been meeting with other conservative and right-wing figures to discuss a “new political community”.

In the interview, Orbán said that cooperation with French right-wing politician Marine Le Pen, a former MEP, was a “possibility”, something he had previously ruled out.

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