The year 2020 tested democracy and civic freedoms in many ways. After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in March, governments took unprecedented actions, such as imposing curfews, restricting people’s movements, and limiting or banning gatherings. According to international law, some of these measures went beyond the permissible bounds for limiting rights during public health emergencies, bounds meant to ensure that such measures are kept “proportionate, necessary, and nondiscriminatory.”
In its latest report, the CIVICUS Monitor—an online tool that tracks the space for civil society globally—shows that the governments of EU states, Norway, and the United Kingdom (UK) restricted civic freedoms in subtle ways, often under the guise of fighting the pandemic. More specifically, the right to peaceful assembly came under attack. It comes as no surprise that authoritarian and far-right governments in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia capitalized on the pandemic, albeit in different ways—driven by various political motives and local political contexts. Yet even countries in which people were typically able to exercise their civic freedoms without major hindrances, like Sweden, pushed the boundaries.
At the same time, civil society intensified its response and fought back, often stepping in when governments went beyond what was necessary and proportionate to fight the public health crisis. But with many countries now going through further waves of the pandemic, the post-pandemic world will bring uncertainties as civil society strives to remain resilient.
Pandemic-Era Violations of Civic Space
The CIVICUS Monitor, whose report “People Power Under Attack 2020” drew on hundreds of civic space updates the organization published between November 2019 and October 2020, documented the detention of protesters as the most common violation of civic space in Europe and globally. The top violations in EU countries that the monitor recorded included detentions, censorship, restrictive laws, excessive use of force, intimidation, and harassment. The data paint a clear and worrying picture: the right to peaceful assembly is under threat in Europe.
The pandemic has complicated this picture, with governments using it as a pretext to further restrict civic space. While governments have claimed that they were imposing measures to tackle the pandemic, these measures often have been contradictory and have excessively restricted the right to peaceful assembly.
Two examples demonstrate this contradiction. First, when coronavirus restrictions were eased in the summer of 2020, governments in some countries allowed people to gather in larger numbers in places of worship, shopping malls, or restaurants but continued to restrict the number of people permitted to gather to protest. This happened in Sweden, where amid the second wave of the pandemic, the government banned public gatherings of more than eight people even as it allowed collective groups to meet in restaurants, at sporting events, and in other similar venues. In France, protests remained banned, and the government enforced this ban with striking severity, even though gatherings were now possible in cultural settings. The government’s protest ban continued in defiance of a legal opinion from the Council of State that this measure was not justified on public health grounds.
In the second contradictory scenario, law enforcement authorities were documented using excessive force and tactics such as kettling and detention to disperse protests for violating pandemic countermeasures. These methods all involve close contact and may lead to an increase in the risk of infection. This was seen in Poland during protests that began in October 2020 against a near-total ban on abortion, when protesters faced police violence and detention. Meanwhile, in the UK, police used various draconian tactics during Black Lives Matter protests in May 2020, which included removing protesters’ face masks to identify them.
Restrictions on the Right to Peaceful Assembly
People in Europe took to the streets to protest for climate and racial justice and for the rights of women, LGBTQ communities, and workers. These protests were met with restrictions such as detentions, use of excessive force, and disruptions. Detentions of protesters were documented in at least sixteen EU countries, while the use of excessive force was recorded in at least ten EU states (see figure 1).1
Figure 1: Map of Protesters Detained in Europe
After the May 2020 killing of Black American George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Black Lives Matter protests took place in several European countries as well, including Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK, with some protests facing repression. In Berlin, scores of protestors were arrested when 15,000 people gathered to protest against police brutality. Similarly, French police used tear gas and excessive force during a feminist march on International Women’s Day.
Several other similar examples surfaced elsewhere in Europe. In Greece, police used excessive force against migrant protesters highlighting poor living conditions within refugee camps. Police also deployed excessive force against antigovernment protests in Slovenia over the many months that the demonstrators mobilized on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, the August 2020 detention in Poland of an LGBTQ activist known as Margot S. sparked large protests in Warsaw. Police arrested nearly fifty of these protestors and subjected many of them to questionable interrogation tactics.
Climate Activism Under Attack
Climate activism is under threat in many EU states too. Several climate change protests, often led by young people, were met with excessive force and detentions (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Map of Climate Protests in Europe
In Finland, the police sprayed peaceful demonstrators with pepper spray at close range and detained more than fifty people at a October 2020 protest organized by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion Finland calling for urgent action against climate change. In Norway, police arrested forty climate protesters from Extinction Rebellion Norway during a demonstration against perceived shortcomings in the government’s climate action plans, particularly its plans for new oil exploration. A handful of Greenpeace protesters were arrested for organizing a protest at a Swedish oil refinery. In the UK, police clamped down hard on climate activists for flying a drone over Heathrow Airport into restricted areas and triggering flight delays and for demonstrating at the airport in September 2019. In addition, young climate activists in some parts of the UK faced surveillance, with participants being filmed during protests.
Meanwhile, in October 2019, police in the Czech Republic removed climate protesters who had blocked traffic as a form of protest and recorded the demonstrators’ names. After the protest, a former Czech prime minister stated that Extinction Rebellion should be put on a potential list of terrorist organizations. Similar cases were documented in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
Civic Resilience: Fighting Back Amid the Pandemic
Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the unprecedented accompanying restrictions on movement and public gatherings, people not only have continued to take to the streets in traditional ways but also have staged physically distanced, creative, symbolic, and online protests. In the words of Klementyna Suchanow, who co-founded the social movement All-Poland Women’s Strike, “We got creative: we invented new forms of protest because we had to.”
These creative ways of protesting for fundamental freedoms showcase much-needed resilience. In Poland in April 2020, women in a physically distanced line protested outside a supermarket to show their disapproval of proposed restrictive changes to the country’s abortion laws. In October 2020, when these proposals were confirmed in a ruling by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, protesters showed their support for women’s sexual and reproductive rights by displaying the lightning bolt symbol of the All-Poland Women’s Strike on their cars. Healthcare workers in Spain staged several physically distanced protests over labor rights amid the pandemic. In one protest, they held up signs with messages such as “Who will look after the people who look after you?”
Climate protests also became creative amid the pandemic. In the Netherlands, activists sent a symbolic message about the climate crisis by filling the square in front of the Dutch parliament in The Hague with 1,000 shoes from across the country. Similarly, in Germany, activists placed more than 1,000 placards about climate change in front of the parliament. Prominent Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg kicked off global physically distanced climate protests outside the Swedish parliament.
Antigovernment protest movements, too, found new ways to demonstrate. In Croatia, the civil society group Zagreb Is Calling You staged balcony protests against the mayor’s poor governance during the pandemic and also in relation to a March 2020 earthquake. In neighboring Slovenia, activists have staged protests on bicycles against the government of Prime Minister Janez Janša since March 2020.
The campaign group One Million Moments for Democracy continued to lead physically distanced demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic. In Hungary, for over two months, students staged various forms of protests over attacks the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has waged against academic freedom in higher education. Students ran several innovative events, including one in which they formed a chain between the parliament and their university.
These examples show that civil society is demonstrating solidarity and resilience, often in unprecedented ways. Civil society is sending a clear message: even amid a global pandemic that has brought many aspects of life to a halt, people will never cease to fight for fundamental freedoms.
There is much uncertainty about what awaits EU states in a post-pandemic world. Civic space restrictions that already existed before the coronavirus outbreak have only worsened, often under the guise of efforts to tackle the pandemic. In EU states specifically, governments have taken often subtle actions that threaten peaceful assembly. Police forces across Europe have deployed hardline measures to limit mass demonstrations, regularly using force and making large numbers of arrests in response to even relatively peaceful gatherings and questionably using public health–related justifications for these tactics.
There are burning questions that civic space observers must continue to ask: Will the right of certain groups, such as climate activists, to peacefully assemble remain under threat after the pandemic? And will governments use the restrictions imposed during the coronavirus outbreak as a springboard to further limit the right to peaceful assembly after the crisis?
Governments must be forced rigorously to justify as medically essential any continuing restrictions on the freedoms of expression and assembly. In addition, governments should work collaboratively with civil society to ensure that states emerge into a post-pandemic environment that enables an open and robust space for civil society and for all people.
Despite the uncertainties, the relentless resistance of civil society provides much-needed positive energy for tackling challenges to civic freedoms after the pandemic. A sharper battle over European democracy is shaping up between governments and civil society.
Aarti Narsee is a civic space researcher for Europe and Central Asia at CIVICUS.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
1 The information in figure 1 has been compiled from many of the civic space updates by the CIVICUS Monitor that informed the group’s “People Power Under Attack 2020” report.