Some EU governments undermined fundamental rights during pandemic, study finds

The report, commissioned by Greens MEPs Terry Reintke and Tineke Strik, says that a number of EU governments have “brazenly” used the pandemic as an excuse to curtail rights such as free speech, peaceful assembly and freedom of association.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

14 Dec 2020

The analysis, said to be the first of its kind, looked at the emergency measures taken by some EU Member States during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It says that some governments have used COVID-19 to “introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms.”

Detention of protesters, excessive use of force and censorship are among method used by some governments to use COVID-19 as a pretence to crack down.

The two authors of the study, law professors Pierre Thielbörger and Mark Dawson, assessed the impact on democracy and the rule of law, free movement of people, asylum and refugee protections and data protection.

The study, presented via an online news conference, says “authoritarian” moves by governments using the pandemic “as a pretext to curtail freedoms” have restricted civil rights in Hungary and Poland and other countries.

The authors and the two MEPs are now calling on the EU to “push back against authoritarian forces.”

“We have seen lots of examples of Member States using the pandemic to either breach EU law or sideline EU law standards. On example is the use of emergency powers not just by the usual suspects, Hungary and Poland, but others” Mark Dawson, study author

Reintke, Greens/EFA Vice-President and member of Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, told reporters, “The nature of this pandemic requires extraordinary short-term measures to get the public health situation under control, but these cannot come at the expense of democracy and fundamental rights.”

“In Hungary and Poland, it’s clear that some of these measures were deliberately designed to expand the powers of the executive and undermine European values.”

“Where there were brazen and obvious breaches of European values, we need to look at how to alter existing regulations, introduce new policies, or close legal loopholes. In future crises, governments need to be able to act under a legally watertight framework that respects the rule of law, when undertaking emergency measures.”

She added, “Countries that appear to have intentionally broken the law for their own domestic and ideological aims, such as the changes to the Hungarian constitution and Polish breaches of data protection rules, need to be investigated. Several countries have used the pandemic to subvert their international obligations by suspending asylum procedures and engaging in pushbacks of refugee boats.”

One of the study’s authors, Mark Dawson said, “We have seen lots of examples of Member States using the pandemic to either breach EU law or sideline EU law standards. On example is the use of emergency powers not just by the usual suspects, Hungary and Poland, but others.”

“The rule of law problems have spilled over into other areas, such as Hungary suspending acts of EU law. There has been a widespread failure to comply with EU asylum law in the first wave when many Member States simply suspended their duties to asylum seekers. I hope this will be taken more seriously in future, in the distribution of vaccines.”

The nature of this pandemic requires extraordinary short-term measures to get the public health situation under control, but these cannot come at the expense of democracy and fundamental rights” Terry Reintke, Greens/EFA

Thielbörger said, “We found that, often, national measures have stretched EU law to their limit or even gone beyond and this is worrying. Examples include the free movement of people, data protection and discrimination in asylum procedures which have been dramatically delayed.”

“The biggest worry is in democracy and the rule of law where there has been a clear departure from common standards with dramatic restrictions on the right of assembly in Hungary. We have seen extreme and worrying developments and the fear is that these things will outlast the pandemic.”

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