Remarks by Vice-President Věra Jourová on “Threats to democracy during the COVID-19 crisis” event organised by B’nai B’rith

Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

Dear organisers from B’nai B’rith,

Dear participants,

We are going through extraordinary times that put unprecedented pressure on us individually, but also on our society. First, we are worried about our health. Then, we are also worried about our jobs and the state of our economies.

But, as the focus of today’s event testifies, there are a lot of people that are asking also different questions. What will be the state of European democracies after the crisis is gone? Are there only risks or also opportunities for Europe? How can we counter the disinformation that is being spread about COVID-19 and preserve freedom of expression?

I believe this is the right time to have this debate, because Europe, and the world, is working on recovery plans. In Europe we will respond to this crisis in full respect of our fundamental principles and human rights.

By killing the virus, we cannot kill democracy!

For some, this might sound strange that we occupy ourselves with such a “trivia” like values. But I have lived through the experience of authoritarian regime in the Communist Czechoslovakia. I know things can go wrong and that rights, freedom and democracy is not a given forever. If we want to preserve and uphold them we must cherish them and fight for them.

In crisis, we need a compass that would help us to strike the right balance between the need to defeat the virus with safeguarding democracy and citizens’ rights and freedoms. I want the Commission to play this role. I would like to discuss this with you today.

Let’s start with the emergency measures which were introduced in vast majority of states in the EU. They are legitimate actions for facing this challenge. But, restrictions of some fundamental rights are inherent to emergency measures. This is why it is important that those measures include democratic safeguards.

Any emergency measure must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate and cannot mean “switching off” national constitutions or EU law. Such measure has to be limited in time and face scrutiny of the people, normally by elected Parliament.

This is why I decided that the Commission should monitor the emergency situations in the Member States, especially their impact on the rule of law and fundamental rights. The focus here is to closely scrutinise limitations which might go beyond what is proportionate or measures which might breach EU law.

We take a proactive approach to this monitoring. We are drawing on information collected from different sources, including information made available by the Member States, direct feedback from European citizens, journalists, civil society organisations, and the Fundamental Rights Agency.

This is why we stated in the joint exit roadmap that the exceptional emergency powers should be replaced by more targeted interventions by governments in line with their constitutional arrangements.

Another area where I want us to pay particular attention is freedom of expression and free and independent media. Media are not only an industry sector, they are the fourth estate. The weaker they are, the weaker the democracy.

Now, it is more important than ever that journalists are able to do their job freely to ensure that our citizens have access to crucial information, and to counter disinformation.

We plan to reflect key rule of law developments stemming from the crisis in the upcoming first ever annual Rule of Law report. This report will be published in autumn and will describe the situation in all the Member States. It is meant as a preventive tool and as basis for dialogue.

Also, by the end of this year we plan to present a reviewed Strategy on the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights. This will give us another opportunity to reflect the importance of fundamental rights and how they can be applied on the ground.

We know very well that there are rule of law challenges in some of our own Member States. I think our founding fathers and the authors of the Lisbon treaty were perhaps too optimistic. They didn’t foresee that European politicians, after experiences with tragic war and authoritarian rule from both right and left, would be tempted to take inspiration from an authoritarian playbook.

We have all worked under lockdown conditions, but we have not locked in our actions in defence of the rule of law. You might have seen that recently we adopted a new infringement case against Poland regarding further legislative changes which undermine the independence of the judiciary. We are monitoring the situation around elections in Poland that were supposed to take place yesterday.

This week I will address the European Parliament on the Emergency Legislation in Hungary and its impact on the Rule of Law and fundamental rights, as the situation has raised particular concerns. I am worried about situation in Hungary, because this emergency decree comes in certain rule of law context. We will monitor carefully all measures adopted under these powers.

But being vigilant on rule of law means being vigilant towards all the Member States. This is a responsibility not only of the EU institutions, but also of the national authorities and of each and every one of us.

I can already tell you that we might need more tools, including I hope the new MFF mechanism that links EU funds with the rule of law.

Ladies and Gentleman,

Democracy means also respect for minorities and support for the less fortunate in our societies. While this is a symmetric shock, the impact on people is asymmetrical.

The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities. Due to stigma, stereotypes and racial discrimination, many people face additional challenges during these times. I see reports about increased violence against women, about increased racism.

In the Commission’s recovery plan we are considering short-term measures of immediate assistance to the marginalized groups suffering from the crisis.

I am also extremely worried about the possible repercussions that the COVID crisis may have on minorities, such as Jewish Europeans. Antisemitic hate speech online has increased by 30% since the beginning of the crisis as conspiracy theories have spiked. The attacks in Halle, Pittsburgh and Christchurch have shown that the lane from words to dreadful actions can be short.

We will therefore not wait until the next attack on a Jewish community happens. Rather, I want to ensure that the fight against antisemitism is part of the various relevant policies: from countering disinformation to the prevention of radicalisation and counter terror measures.

History of the European Union is nothing else than a story of rising together though crises. When the going gets tough, Europe gets going. This weekend we have celebrated the Schuman Day that reminds us of this.

A new push for democracy in Europe is a headline ambition of this Commission. I was entrusted with preparing a European Democracy Action Plan by the end of this year. The aim is to help improve the resilience of our democracies and address threats, including of external interference in European elections. I plan also to counter disinformation and to adapt to evolving threats and manipulations, as well as to support free and independent media. I invite you all to feed your ideas into the preparatory steps.

Democracy is fragile and needs to be taken care of. Václav Havel was spot on when he wrote: ‘The natural disadvantage of democracy is that it is extremely tiring to those who mean it honestly, while it allows almost everything to those who do not take it seriously.’ And if I may add something today, I would also include ‘to those who want to abuse it’.

Thank you for the attention and cooperation!

Christian WIGAND