This year, we celebrate 25 years since the establishment of the Copenhagen criteria. The Copenhagen criteria marked a milestone in European history as they set out the essential conditions that all countries must satisfy before becoming a member state of our Union. Essentially, they require stable institutions that can unequivocally guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. The values found in the Copenhagen criteria form the very foundation of our free, tolerant and just European society.
The Copenhagen criteria lay the foundation for an open, free and united European Union. The entire EU legal order is premised on countries being full democracies. In other words, our European communities are based on three fundamental pillars: democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. These three pillars hold our European project in place. They work together and in parallel.
At the same time, as the Copenhagen criteria continue to provide the framework, guidance and inspiration for the EU’s enlargement policy, people are being confronted with a world-wide wave of anti-democratic backlash. For instance, under President Trump, US democratic principles have reached their lowest support in decades. Not only does Mr Trump continue to attack, circumvent and ridicule the free press but he also appears completely indifferent to democracy’s global fate.
The main elements of this messaging align closely with the playbook of authoritarian strongmen who are gaining ground globally.
Democracy, human rights and the rule of law are among humanity’s the biggest achievements. With us in Europe, they have been the foundation on which we have built strong welfare states. We build our social and inclusive societies on these values. Those open societies that others now try to tear down.
In Poland, for instance, the Law and Justice party has systematically undermined checks and balances, and the proper functioning of independent institutions. The authorities have curbed media freedom turning public media into a crude party propaganda organ. Another startling example of democratic decline can be found in Hungary, where the Fidesz Government of Viktor Orbán used a large parliamentary majority to make it extremely difficult for the courts to keep its powers in check. Electoral boundaries have been re-drawn in favour of the ruling party and Incumbent officials have been removed to make way for Fidesz loyalists, who have facilitated the rise of what Orbán calls “illiberal” democracy and what we can only call “partial democracy”.
What makes “partial democracy” a particularly dangerous phenomenon is that it is a form of authoritarianism born within the framework of real democracy. The path away from democracy is seldom paved by blatant violations of the rule of law, but rather by borderline actions that systematically erode and undermine legality and the rule of law. Under this “partial democracy”, countries barricade themselves from the world, which in turn becomes an excuse for intolerance, exclusion and dangerous nationalistic populism. This generates deep mistrust of the European institutions, boosting a distorted narrative where Europe is the scapegoat for all possible evils.
However, enough is enough! The enemies of pluralism and decency are trying to move away from our solid European model of democracy one-step at the time. We will not allow that! Protecting the integrity of our democracy is our daily concern, and we do that by acting. By working every day for more just, equal and free societies through the policies we promote, locally, nationally and in the European Union.
While our democracy is based on compromise, nationalism and extremism are based on polarisation. The winner-takes-it-all mentality says: we are right and you are wrong. Therefore, you have no right to speak. Populists are determined to undermine the open democratic fabric of our European society. By claiming to be the only true representatives of the people, they treat political rivals as enemies of the people, rather than party-political opponents. We will never tolerate this!
We progressives are very proud of our democracies! Democracies that show respect for those who have lost in fair elections. In a real democracy, the minority – or opposition, is just as essential to the proper functioning of that democracy, as the majority – or ruling party. We, the progressives, will not tolerate right-wing populists transforming democracy from an instrument of inclusion into one of exclusion.
To guard our democracies, we must take decisive steps. We will not succumb to silence and a sense of business-as-usual. The European Parliament has shown that it is not afraid, by voting by an overwhelming majority to censure the Hungarian government for eroding democracy and failing to uphold fundamental European Union values. Every European citizen has the right to live in a functioning democracy, and we will always fight to protect it. Real functioning democracies can never work just partially!
Together we must:
– Ensure that the Copenhagen criteria continue to be the bedrock of European democracy for all member states to uphold,
– Stand firmly behind a strong European democracy. We must fight relentlessly against any government’s attempts to take-over its judicial system and override its democratic procedures. We must equally fight against governments that threaten independent institutions and seek to fuse the ruling party with the state,
– Be ready to act when the rule of law is under threat. We must always protect media freedom and the separation of powers, and we must rebuke without compromise any attacks on our independent civil society in whatever shape,
– Develop and implement tough sanctions, to deter from governments attempting to make “reforms” which run counter to the rule of law. We need to find new ways to defend our democracy. One way would be to link compliance with the rule of law and budgetary sanctions, making sure that any sanctions hit those who are responsible.
– Relentlessly defend human rights and strengthen the protection of political, religious, sexual and other minorities throughout the Union,
– Ensure support for academics to allow them to work without restriction, and protect Civil Society Organizations who bravely continue to fight for fair European societies.
Now, a quarter of a century after the Copenhagen criteria were established we need them more than ever. Together we fight for more democracy, not less!