EU countries are taking an authoritarian turn – and we have to stop it

Since the fall of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc in 1991, the European continent has not experienced any dictatorship, with the exception of Belarus. When the Eastern European countries joined the European Union, many saw this threat disappearing. Indeed, to enter the EU, member states had to commit to democracy and to a certain degree of liberal values and personal liberties. On the other hand, the EU was seen as the enforcer of the new democracies. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries like Russia and Turkey shifted slowly but surely towards authoritarian regimes.

As a result no one expected the rise of authoritarian measures,  which is currently taking place inside the European Union. Some of this measures are happening in Eastern European countries where the relatively ‘new democracies’ are now with conservative and nationalistic governments, which do not embrace European values and impose authoritarian measures nationally. It is indeed one more expression of the East-West cleavage in the EU. Western European countries are also imposing authoritarian measures at home and there are two reasons for this. First, there is fear of terrorism. Facing the threat of massive and indiscriminate attacks, some governments have slowly but surely headed towards authoritarianism, sacrificing liberties over security. Secondly, the economic crisis has increased poverty and made many people worse off. A climate of elite distrust has grown and this has led to social unrest and protest, with some restricting it.

The first warning sign came a couple of years ago, when Viktor Orban became the Prime Minister of Hungary. His years in government have been marked by illiberal measures such as a restrictive media law, and marginalisation of the Roma population, among many others. But as Hungary was only a small country out of the 28 member states, the European Union was not greatly concernced. However, in October 2015, the conservative party Law and Justice won the general election in Poland. In a matter of months, it passed laws that weaken constitutional checks and balances, as well as restrict media freedom. In December, the ministers of Justice of Hungary and Poland manifested their opposition to the legalisation of homosexual marriage in a Council of Ministers of the European Union. Poland and Hungary are giving headaches to the European Institutions and to the member states. Indeed, the EU has already expressed concerns both in public and in private. Some MEPs have suggested a temporal expulsion of Hungary or the suspension of their right to vote in European Affairs. Last month, the Commission decided to put polish democracy under evaluation.

The refugee crisis contributes to these problems. Hungary built a fence this summer and its treatment to refugees has been poor and violent. The new Polish government claims that refugees carry diseases and do not want to welcome them, in spite of the agreement reached by the previous government. But this time, they are not the only countries to act in this way. The Czech Republic voted against the refugee redistribution schema and Denmark has passed a law which allows the government to steal goods of the refugees to pay for their maintenance costs.

The country, which has implemented authoritarian measures due to the terrorist threat, is obviously France. After the 13th of November terrorist attacks, the President François Hollande imposed a State of Emergency. The National Assembly approved it by nearly unanimity, as it was seen as a temporary measure following the attacks; European member states and the French public opinion were supportive to a large extent. Three months later, not only is France still under the State of Emergency, but the Assembly has approved a further enlargement. What are the implications? The executive power has been granted more powers over the judiciary. Demonstration are prohibited; indeed during the COP21 conference in Paris, ecological activists were confined to home arrest. Indiscriminate searches can be carried out in homes without judiciary permission at any moment of the day or the night. A plan of mass vigilance have been approved. Finally, French MPs have voted in favour of removing the nationality to citizens with double nationality having committed a crime against the nation. The State of Emergency threatens civil liberties and France cannot use terrorism as a justification of such liberty cuts. Neither Spain nor the UK implemented such measures after the terrible attacks they suffered in 2003 and 2005 respectively. The Commission is worried, as Jean Quatremer, a journalist for the French newspapers Libération, writes in his blog: if France was not a member the EU and wanted to join it under the State of Emergency, it would not fit the democratic criteria!

Governments restricting protest is the last kind of authoritarian measures I have identified. This is especially visible in Spain, which last year introduced a ‘gag law’ aimed at criminalising social and pacific protest. The ‘gag law’ restrains the right to protest and impose harsh sanctions on whoever breaks it. International newspapers such as Le Monde or The New York Times have denounced it as an intolerable freedom cut in a democratic country. Its editorials have described it as ‘ominous’ and ‘with smells of Franquism’, asking for the Commission ‘to condemn the new law’ and urging Spanish lawmakers to ‘reject the measure’. This paragraph of The New York Time explains best what the ‘Gag law’ is about:

“The law would define public protest by actual persons in front of Parliament as a ‘disturbance of public safety’ punishable by a fine of 30,000 euros. People who join in spontaneous protests near utilities, transportation hubs, nuclear power plants or similar facilities would risk a jaw-dropping fine of €600,000. The “unauthorized use” of images of law enforcement authorities or police – presumably aimed at photojournalists or ordinary citizens with cameras taking pictures of cops or soldiers – would also draw a €30,000 fine, making it hard to document abuses.”

The criminalisation of social protest reached worrying grounds last week. Two puppeteers (yes, you read it right, puppeteers) were arrested and sent to prison, allegedly accused of praising terrorism. In Spain, where the Basque terrorist separatist group ETA killed more than 900 people between the 1970s and 2011, it is strictly forbidden to praise terrorism. Later on it has been proven that the two puppeteers were not praising terrorism; in fact, they were denouncing police manipulation. In their representation they used a banner with the inscription ‘Gora Alka-Eta’, which in Basque means ‘long live Al-QuaETA’, mixing the names of the two terrorist groups and playing with the names. The banner was placed by a policeman near an unconscious protester, precisely to accuse him of terrorist allegiances (how ironic!). Clearly, the banner was part of their representation and they were therefore not praising terrorism. As it was denounced by politicians, journalists and cultural personalities censoring critical fiction is something which happens in dictatorships, not in democracies. Even more worrying, in the last four years more than 1000 persons have been accused of praising terrorism. Some of these accusations were right. However, given the really high number, it is legitimate to ask if unfounded accusations of praising terrorism are not becoming a way of intimidating and criminalising social protest in Spain.

It is undeniable that due to different factors, some European member states have taken authoritarian measures unimagined a couple of years ago. In this post, I have mainly talked of governmental actions, but I believe a much bigger threat lies outside power, mainly in the far-right parties, which are growing in France, Austria, the Nordic countries and have a strong presence in Greece, Germany and some Eastern states. Actually, they already influence national politics by weighting the balance in their direction. More worryingly, their increasing electoral support shows that some people are actually ready to support the implementation of authoritarian measures. This is really scary and it throws us back to the worst years of the last century. A radically democratic solution has to be proposed to oppose the rise of authoritarianism in Europe. Civil society, from social movements to the press, have to keep denouncing and pressing. Citizens should reject authoritarian laws in the streets and in the ballot box. Politicians have to adopt inclusive discourses which illegitimate authoritarian parties and oppose them with more democracy. It has been proven: the best way to weaken authoritarianism is democracy. For, France must end its State of Emergency and Spain’s new parliament has to abolish the ‘gag law’. Finally, the European Institutions have a huge role to play as well. It is not enough to condemn what is happening. European politicians and technocrats should be more visible and offer as well more democracy and transparency. Get closer to the people and make them participate. Otherwise, they will fall down in the arms of undesirable parties and individuals. Clearly, those are not easy times for Europe, nor is the solution easy, but it is time to act against this growing authoritarianism. The first step is denouncing. Then will come the protest, and we well might be in this process soon.

Many thanks to my friend Paula García Domingo and my dad for revising this post!

© Mario Cuenda García