European Institutions and Covid-19: A democratic crisis?

By Jacopo Di Giovanni

The Covid.19 crisis has changed the way of life in the Western world. It had never happened that modern democratic States had to give up their powers and reduce the freedoms guaranteed by the law to defend the right to health. Europe has found itself dealing with a situation that has no precedent. Consequently, the moral value of democracy has suffered some damage. The crisis has shown a clearer picture of the various EU actors functioning, despite the justification of an unexpected event like this.
The concept of democracy has changed within the EU Member States and their institutions: it has been a year that the lifestyle has changed, but the unease is both emotional and economic. What are the consequences?

The perceived democratic crisis in the Member States

A study published in early 2020 by The Economist shows good democratic stability throughout the area, although there are still differences between various states. So even if there are serious problems, the situation can be considered stable politically. However, the pandemic has led the Member States to take extraordinary measures to prevent widespread infection. Most European governments have had to speed up their respective parliamentary procedures to apply exceptional measures such as lockdowns. All this leads to an inevitable loss of internal democracies’ role and the consequent fear of abuse of their power by the national governments. Despite this, the European citizens have understood the seriousness of the situation.
In fact, in the Eurobarometer report in mid-2020, data that help understand the degree of satisfaction of national policies, on average, 54% of citizens tend to support the policies adopted by their governments. Countries like France, Poland, and Hungary are not satisfied quite as much as Austria, Finland, and the Netherlands. However, the sceptical feeling towards the EU has not changed.

Besides, the citizens of Europe have expressed their criticism of the work of the institutions through certain petitions, another European democratic tool, throw which they asked for some clarifications. One of these is the n° 1399/2020 by a French citizen who has called for more significant and fast cooperation and more excellent justification for sudden violations of fundamental rights at the European level. It is a symptom of ineffective communication and justification by politics.

The Impact of Covid-19 on the EU democratic institutions: A lack of democracy?

The European institutions had to adapt the relative power granted by the Treaties by pursuing, exceptionally, drastic solutions while still respecting the democratic value enshrined in the Treaties of the European Union.

The European Parliament, which is the lonely Eu institution democratically elected by the citizens, is the one who suffered a lot the relegation of national parliaments to a secondary role compared to that of the executive bodies in this situation. From the beginning of the pandemic, it has had to amend the Rules of Procedure and change the way it performs its function. “Democracy cannot be suspended, especially during such a dramatic crisis,” said David Sassoli, the President of the European Parliament, in a speech on March 2020. Hence, he adopted new measures to adjust the entire conduct of parliamentary activities and his committees during these months. It proved necessary to find a standard solution so that the body which shares the legislative process with the Council providing solutions.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the most difficult challenge has been to find an alternative to the traditional methods of voting in plenary sessions in a short time; still, the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure do not provide for written voting procedures. Indeed, since March 2020, it was necessary to move the sessions, ultimately adopting digital participation through an integrated verification system, and these changes showed unavoidable aspects of the crisis. Therefore, Benjamin Bodsdom, academic assistant of Union law at the University of Leuven, underlined that these changes had a “de facto” a drastic impact on the functioning of the European Parliament as MEPs have limited the number and duration of their interventions to adopt acts as soon as possible. Besides, Openpolis, an Italian independent and aimless foundation, shows that from March 2020 until last November, the total votes executed through online platforms have been 4378.

Furthermore, the restriction of civil freedom has led to criticism among the institutions themselves. For example, Mrs O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, sent a letter in April 2020 to the Presidents of the EU Commission and the European Council. She recommended, “such measures will help maintain public trust and will form part of any post-Covid-19 assessment of how the EU administration handled the crisis”.

The European Commission, the institution with a direct connection with the Parliament, has played the primary role with greater responsibility. He had to change the settlement procedures. For Example, the following statement was added to the Rules of Procedure recently: “In exceptional circumstances, if part or all of the Members of the Commission are prevented from attending a meeting of the Commission in person, the President may invite them to participate by means of telecommunication systems allowing for their identification and effective participation.” The Commission has pushed for a further strengthening of the online information service on owns economic and health actions.

The Future Hopes

To sum up, Europe needs a strategy for multilateralism that could be adapted to a newly competitive world. The last year has shown the need for close cooperation between intergovernmental institutions and others to deal with a situation never seen before. A political effort will be needed to reconstruct the entire Eu governance, including through the funds that will be spent. It needs complete multilateralism; also strong cooperation with foreign Organizations as WHO and WTO.

An EU Commission communication published the last February stressed the need for multilateral engagement in an increasingly transnational global system. The Conference on the future of Europe could be a valuable democratic tool to trigger a new type of communication with European citizens. By joining the various forces and multiple concerns, they can make Europe even more effective and innovative.This is what is expected of an actor that has made democracy and freedom its core values.