The COVID-pandemic left a permanent mark on democracy in the EU

Source: European Parliament


By Farhat Mahjor

As the European Union (EU) faces another crisis, we must reimagine the democratic features of the European institutions and the concept of democracy in the Member States. The EU keeps being a beacon for democratic values and principles. During the Covid-19 pandemic it kept prioritizing the needs of citizens and companies as always. However, the pandemic brought significant challenges to democracy in the Member States, highlighting structural inequalities within the health and education systems, social protection gaps, racial discrimination, and so on. For this reason, it is necessary to re-imagine the very essence of what democracy means in order to tackle future crises more effectively.  

COVID-19 “no longer represents a global health emergency”

On May 5th 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 pandemic to be officially under control, and that it “no longer represents a global health emergency”. Although the situation is no longer labelled as an emergency, the virus is still around and is able to develop new dangerous variants, claims the head of WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

This statement comes 1150 days after that same institution declared the COVID-19 virus had caused a worldwide pandemic of international concern. Lockdowns were part of the emergency measures that Member States’ governments implemented to address public health and safety. To a great extent, these restrictions affected civil liberties, such as freedom of movement and expression; raised concerns on privacy due to increased online surveillance; and tackled the spread of fake news by aggressive cyber-policing. While these measures were perceived as necessary from a public health perspective, there was an anxious assumption from the citizens that these measures would roll back civil and human rights permanently or become abused for power interests. This is not completely unreasonable since the implementation of those emergency restrictions often meant giving full powers to the executives and potentially limiting checks and balances. This occurrence raised democratic concerns; the balance between protecting public health and preserving fundamental rights was oftentimes put in jeopardy. Therefore, ensuring that COVID-measures remained temporary, proportional, and subject to parliamentary oversight was crucial for safeguarding democratic principles, but also to guarantee vertical and horizontal accountability.

Challenges to democratic accountability

Sarah Engler and other researchers, in their research on democracy in times of the pandemic argued about the connection between the degree to which democratic principles are respected during ‘normal times’ and how those principles become limited during the COVID-pandemic. In other words, those fundamental rights and civil liberties that are strongly safeguarded by the national constitutions and authorities are less likely to be restricted by the national executive. 

Expert of international relations Jan Balliauw writes that democracy grants citizens a sense of ownership in decision-making processes. The pandemic tested our democracy on its resilience and showed how a situation of emergency needs to be handled differently than what we are used to during normal times. It also affected the trust we had in the European integration process. That which boosted our economies and intertwined the societies of the Member States has also made it easier for the virus to circulate faster and invade our homes. 

Should one be blamed for the restrictions of our liberties which were implemented with the sole purpose of securing public health? Should the EU be held accountable for the actions of its Member States? It cannot be denied that the COVID-pandemic highlighted the EU’s shortcomings. But one thing the EU has always done, and will continue to do, is making an opportunity out of a crisis to strengthen democracy. For instance, the pandemic led to the creation of the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) which protects European citizens’ participation in the EU decision-making process from media manipulation, (European) election interference and disinformation. In 2023, the European Commission will review the results of the action plan. 

Re-imagining democracy

In our contemporary world, we are used to the minimalist view of democracy, which is simply narrowed down to elections, the rule of law and the safeguarding of fundamental human rights. A broader view would prioritize citizens’ participation and deliberation more than we currently do, as Clodagh Harris and Ian Hughes argue. Moreover, one purpose of democracy is bringing together citizens of different backgrounds and resolving the inequalities between them. According to political theorist Wendy Brown the existence of democratic society has been fading away. Especially in times of crises, citizens should be protected more against the excesses of power. One alternative is to empower citizens in the European decision-making processes by investing in deliberative and participatory democratic innovations. This generates a ‘slow politics’ which is more efficient in dealing with policy challenges that need long term solutions.