DRAFT STATEMENT VIENNA
The European Union was founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the rule of law. These values are the foundation of a free, tolerant and just European society. Many of the freedoms and rights that we Europeans enjoy today were won through long and tough struggles.
Though democracy is at the very heart of the European project, a vast number of people feel that democracy in Europe can no longer be taken for granted. Whether it refers to restricted media freedoms, or unconstitutional legislation; reports of democratic backsliding continue to surface.
European citizens are in distress as they see the rise of populist authoritarianism that brushes aside dissent and cares little about the functioning of an open and liberal democratic system. This system is based on three pillars: democracy, the rule of law, and the respect for human rights. These three pillars hold the European project in place. They work together.
The road away from democracy is seldom characterised by blatant violations of the rule of law. Instead, the path away from democracy typically relies on actions within the law, meaning the law is deployed to undermine legality and the rule of law. Many recent instances of democratic decline follow this counter-intuitive logic.
For instance, In Hungary, the Fidesz Government of Viktor Orbán used a large parliamentary majority to make it extremely difficult for the courts to keep government powers in check. As most ordinary courts are still behaving independently, the government created a new court to deal with questions about elections, the right to public protest and corruption. In addition, electoral boundaries have been re-drawn in favour of the ruling party; the government used public money to fund public information advertisements that carried the ruling party’s electoral campaign messages. Incumbent officials were removed to make way for Fidesz loyalists, who have facilitated the rise of what Orbán calls “illiberal” or “non-liberal” democracy.
“Illiberalism” is an ideological stance that rejects the necessity of independent institutions as checks on the government and dismisses the idea of legitimate disagreement in the public sphere. In this illiberal environment, citizens are able to go to protests, publish articles, or make critical remarks on social media without risking violent prosecution. However, such activities will expose them to intrusive government inspections and ferocious attacks in government-aligned media, and even discrimination in employment.
The alternative vision of the illiberal norm one is one that demands countries barricade themselves against the world, which in turn becomes an excuse for intolerance, exclusion and raving populism. All this generates deep distrust in the European institutions, boosting a distorted narrative, one where Europe is the scapegoat for all possible evils.
Another example of democratic decline is found in Poland. Since coming to power, the Law and Justice party has systematically undermined checks and balances and independent institutions central to any genuine democracy. Parliament has adopted laws obstructing the work of the Constitutional Tribunal, and enabling political interference in appointing and dismissing judges. The authorities have also curbed media freedom, limited freedom of assembly, and sought to silence the voices of non-governmental groups.
While our Union is based on a win-win model, polarisation, nationalism and extremism are all based on zero-sum condition. The winner-takes-it-all mentality says: we are right and they are wrong. Therefore, they have no right to speak out. Those determined to undermine the open democratic fabric of Europe, treat political rivals as enemies of the people not as party-political opponents. However, an open democracy presupposes that if you win an election, you show respect for those who have lost the election. In a democracy, the minority, the opposition, is as essential for the functioning of that democracy, as is the majority or the ruling party. Regrettably, this notion is being challenged in an increasing number of member states.
We cannot forget that democracy is built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is debate and when there is debate, solutions are found. Inversely, where there is no rule of law, there is abuse, corruption and lack of basic freedoms.
Democracy is at the very core of the European project and the democratic challenge we face must be at the centre of our actions. We cannot succumb to silence and a sense of powerlessness. The European Parliament has shown that was not afraid when it voted 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! Together we must:
– stand firmly behind a strong European democracy. We must fight relentlessly against any government’s takeover of the judicial system and violations of ordinary parliamentary procedures. We must equally fight against governments that disdain independent institutions and seek to fuse the ruling party with the state,
– not be afraid to act when the rule of law is under threat. We must always protect media freedom, the separation of powers and sanction without compromise any attacks on independent civil society in whatever shape,
– develop a wide range of sanctions, which are sophisticated, fierce and act as a deterrent when governments attempt to make “reforms” which run counter to the rule of law. We need to find new ways to defend our democracy. For instance, by linking the compliance with the rule of law and budgetary sanctions,
– show respect for diversity and strengthen the protection of minorities in our Union, be they ethnic, religious or sexual; as well as protect the independence of the academic community.
We need more democracy not less!