European Leaders Seized More Power During the Pandemic. Few Have ‘Exit Plans’ to Hand It Back
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Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives across Europe due to Covid-19, and many more have suffered long-term ill health after contracting the disease. They’re not the only casualties of the pandemic.
Democratic norms have also been seriously dented by a year of restrictions, and experts now fear power-hungry politicians could be reluctant to give up their near-total authority once the crisis is over.
In France, for instance, parliament approved a bill last week that extends the country’s state of emergency until late September. The bill allows President Emmanuel Macron to introduce a health pass, showing whether someone has been vaccinated against Covid-19 or not, as well as curfews across the nation.
The move was seen as controversial by some of Macron’s liberal allies: after all, instructing your citizens to be home by a certain time and tracking their medical information is hardly consistent with France’s liberal traditions.
Over the course of his presidency, Macron has been accused of drifting from the centrist liberal platform on which he was elected in 2017, most notably taking a harder line on Islam and immigration to compete with his top political rival, the far-right Marine Le Pen.
It wasn’t long ago that the French president was extolling the values of democracy. Speaking to the US Congress in 2018, he paid tribute to the “sanctuary of democracy” he was addressing and reminded the world of the words “emblazoned on the flags of the French revolutionaries, ‘Vivre libre ou mourir.’ Live free or die.” Ironic, given the president’s apparent eagerness to boss his citizens around to stop the spread of a deadly virus.
Macron’s loosening relationship with democracy doesn’t stop at tracking who’s been injected and forcing people indoors. Throughout the pandemic, the president has reduced the role that his parliament plays in scrutinizing his policy announcements.
“Parliament’s role in France is more limited under the new state of health emergency than before,” said Joelle Grogan, senior lecturer in UK public and EU law at the University of Middlesex. “There is no obligation for governments and administrations to send copies of orders they adopt to parliament.”
Democracy Reporting International (DRI) recently published a comprehensive study on how governments across the European Union had responded in the context of democracy and the rule of law. France was listed as a country of “significant concern” for the extent to which its government has subverted legal norms.
France is not the only EU nation that has backslid on democracy.
In Austria, Slovenia, Belgium and Lithuania to name a few, there is serious concern that governments have misused existing laws to restrict the liberty of citizens.
In fact, DRI listed only Spain out of the 27 EU member states as a country of “no concern” when it came to parliamentary or legal oversight of Covid measures.
The most egregious example probably comes from Hungary, where the government passed legislation that allowed it to rule by decree with no judicial review.
Courts in Cyprus and the Czech Republic claimed to have no jurisdiction over coronavirus measures. This significantly reduced moves to safeguard any attempted government overreach.
A central concern of DRI’s report is that few European countries have a clear “exit plan” for ending states of emergency and returning to normal ways of governance.
This is a real concern in the case of France. Phillippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London, notes that in recent years, France has introduced numerous states of emergency in response to terror attacks. Many of the measures introduced at these times concerning personal liberty have remained in place.
“I would bet that a lot of the illiberal measures that have come in under Covid, like the health pass and threats of curfews will remain in place or be seen again,” he said. “Politicians are very good at taking authority but less good at handing it back.”
There is particular concern among some that Macron, who is facing election next year, might see keeping a tight grip on power as advantageous.
“The French president has more power on paper than the American president. He can control the police, the army, all domestic policy, all foreign policy. He even appoints his own prime minister,” said Marlière. “This, combined with someone seeking re-election who is already shifting to the right on issues like Islam with no real oversight is very concerning.”
More worryingly, the DRI report also states that only five EU member states — the Czech Republic, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Portugal — have adequate exit strategies for a return to normal.
“It’s far easier to govern by decree than to govern within limits, so it’s obvious why leaders would want to hang onto powers,” said Grogan, who also noted that undermining the rule of law has been a problem within the EU for some time.