As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded over the past two months, democratic systems have been challenged in some EU Member States by governments using extraordinary powers to toss civil liberties, democratic freedoms and human rights out the window.
The independence of the judiciary, press freedom, space for civil society, academic freedom and even democracy itself are under very serious threat in countries like Hungary and Poland where governing parties are maximising their grip on executive powers. In order to mitigate the effects of the growing rule of law crisis at hand, and to devise a comprehensive exit strategy from the pandemic, in view of restoring the rule of law and fundamental rights, the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament presented on 13 May a 10-point Action Plan to uphold democracy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan is addressed to the European Commission and the European Council, highlighting Renew Europe's strong commitment to rule of law conditionality of the future use of EU funds, and introducing a centralised model of direct fund management by the Commission in countries that are subject to an Article 7 TEU procedure and/or when the government in office is responsible for severe violations of EU fundamental values. The aim of this would be to directly benefit the intended recipients such as central or local authorities, civil society, companies and citizens and turning off the money taps for oligarchs and corrupted state networks.
The Action Plan also calls for conditionality of membership of the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) for countries to receive EU emergency and flexible funding to fight the COVID-19 crisis. Further proposed measures include temporary crisis aid for civil society and to support independent media outlets, creating a fund for education on European values and setting up an ‘Art. 2 Litigation Fund’ that enables citizens to challenge violations of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.
President of Renew Europe Dacian Cioloş commented:
"Democracy, individual rights and the rule of law are non-negotiable - this is a red line for the Renew Europe, including when it comes to the discussion on the next MFF. Europe is not built on populism and extremism; it is built by investing real resources hand in hand with the protection of values, the rule of law and a free judiciary to defend these values. This Action Plan shows that upholding democracy is in our Group's DNA under all circumstances. Today, there is a red alert for democracy in certain EU Member States. We need strong actions and determination to guarantee that all citizens across Europe can live under rule of law."
Sophie in 't Veld MEP, Chair of the EP's Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group said:
“Like with any crisis, the European Union needs to adopt a comprehensive and concrete Crisis Action Plan to tackle the profound rule of law crisis we face in Europe today. In some countries the rule of law and fundamental rights are being trampled on. That is eroding the European Union from the inside. We have to stop this trend and ensure democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights are robust throughout the Union.”
“The measures against the pandemic have a big impact on the rule of law. It is imperative that the lockdown exit strategy explicitly includes the rule of law aspects, to make sure that exceptional powers are wound down, and normal checks and balances restored.”