As the coronavirus pandemic moves into its third year, there is no doubt that it will have lasting effects on civic and democratic freedoms. Governments around the world, including in Europe, have used the public health emergency to undermine fundamental rights. Even as these governments ease pandemic countermeasures, their attempts to restrict civic freedoms continue. The pandemic has fused with a range of other factors to chip away at democratic rights.
According to the CIVICUS Monitor—an online tool created by the civil society organization CIVICUS that tracks the space available for civil society—civic freedoms continue to decline worldwide. The monitor assigns countries a rating on the state of their civil society freedoms: open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed, or closed. Looking at the twenty-seven EU member states, Norway, and the UK, the CIVICUS Monitor designates fourteen of the countries as open, thirteen as narrowed, and two as obstructed. This year, it downgraded the rating of three EU members: Poland’s rating fell from “narrowed” to “obstructed” while the Czech Republic’s and Belgium’s went from “open” to “narrowed.”
The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are the aspects of democracy that have been most worryingly under threat in Europe. From November 2020 through October 2021, protesters were detained in at least twenty-two states; the use of excessive force was documented in at least sixteen; and journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society faced intimidation in at least seventeen.
In Belgium, at least two protests against racial and economic injustice in January 2021 were met with detentions and excessive force, with reports of authorities using “beatings,” “strangulations,” and “racist insults.” At an environmental rights protest staged in Finland in June 2021, the police arrested more than 100 people, with one protester stating that she was targeted due to her race and injured after she was dragged by police officers. In Poland, women human rights defenders advocating for reproductive rights faced escalating threats, including bomb, death, and rape threats. In Portugal, Mamadou Ba, a prominent Senegal-born Portuguese citizen and antiracism activist from the advocacy group SOS Racismo, faced public vilification as many called for his deportation.
Other frequently documented violations deal with the use of restrictive laws and physical attacks on journalists, who have been targeted during protests against pandemic countermeasures. These violations have taken place even in countries where people are typically able to exercise their civic freedoms without major hindrances. Crucially, it is not only authoritarian governments in Europe that have threatened civic freedoms during the pandemic: established democracies have done so too.
Civic Freedoms Still Challenged
During the pandemic, some European governments have taken actions that have breached international law, which states that steps taken to limit rights during a public health emergency must be “necessary,” “proportionate,” and nondiscriminatory.
Indeed, several courts have also pointed out that some restrictions on peaceful assembly have been unconstitutional. In Slovenia, antigovernment cycling protests ongoing since March 2020 were met with heavy fines and legal harassment after the government banned the gatherings and later limited their size. In July 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that a “complete ban on rallies meant an extremely serious encroachment on the [constitutional] right to peaceful and public assembly.” In Spain, the government banned large gatherings during the pandemic and enforced this stipulation selectively. In July 2021, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government’s lockdown measures between March 14 and June 21, 2020, including the ban on gatherings, were illegal and limited fundamental rights.
Other governments applied inconsistent rules that arbitrarily limited the right to peaceful assembly. When the Hungarian government lifted a ban on assemblies, the authorities continued to impose arbitrary restrictions, such as reserving the right to disband protests of more than 500 people even if a single protester did not have an immunity certificate. In Ireland, the authorities allowed public gatherings for social purposes but cracked down on planned protests. Some governments sought to tighten regulations for protests in other ways: new guidelines from the Austrian government, for instance, gave the police more supervisory powers when issuing permits for protests.
Despite these attempts to curtail protests, Europeans took to the streets for a variety of issues, including social and economic inequalities, labor rights, gender justice, equality and reproductive rights, political rights, and environmental rights. In some instances, people protested against pandemic countermeasures such as mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccines. While these protests spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus and the pandemic, participants argued that they were asserting their individual rights and freedoms.
Democratic Erosion in Longtime Democracies
Established democracies in Europe are increasingly imposing restrictions on civic freedoms for multiple reasons, including the UK, France, Germany, and others.
A key example is the UK, where the government is continuing to seriously undermine fundamental rights. In September 2021, the country was placed on the CIVICUS Monitor’s Watch List of countries where there have been recent and rapid deteriorations in civic freedoms. (While it was taken off this list in March 2022, that does not necessarily imply that civic space conditions in the country have improved.) In his address during the Summit for Democracy in December 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson remarked that “people are neither passive nor powerless, but free citizens with a right to participate in the governance of their country.” Yet he and the country’s Conservative Party–led government have taken actions to the contrary.
Despite numerous concerns expressed by civil society, the government is determined to push through several legislative proposals that could infringe on people’s rights, especially those of minority communities. For instance, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill severely threatens the right to protest by giving the police considerable powers to crack down on demonstrators. If passed, the bill would have serious repercussions for minority groups, including Roma and Traveller communities, Black people, and other people of color.
The House of Lords recently voted down some restrictive additions to this bill that directly targeted methods used by climate defenders during demonstrations involving civil disobedience. These additions would have prevented protesters from using the technique of locking on to make it difficult to remove them from protest sites, kept demonstrators from interfering with major transportation networks or key national infrastructure, and allowed the police to exercise stop-and-search powers and ban protests. The House of Lords also passed amendments that remove or weaken antiprotest measures already in the bill such as police powers to impose noise-based restrictions on protests or place limits on one-person protests. However, in late February 2022, the House of Commons rejected amendments by the House of Lords regarding noise-based restrictions on protests and reintroduced restrictions on single-person protests. This once again demonstrates the UK government’s determination to restrict protests.
The bill comes as protesters have faced several years of repression and have been repeatedly and publicly vilified by the government as “extremists.” For example, antifracking protesters have faced repeated court prosecutions, while protests staged by Extinction Rebellion have been met with detentions and excessive force, with the environmental group reporting 2,000 prosecutions for protest actions between April 2019 and September 2021. Protests calling for racial justice have been repressed too. The most recent targeting of antiracism protesters came in January 2022 when the attorney general decided to prioritize litigation against racial justice defenders, announcing that she would appeal the acquittal of four protesters who toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. The move came after Conservative Party members had denounced the ruling.
The UK government has proposed several other legislative amendments that threaten to erode fundamental checks and balances. These include a proposal to overhaul the Human Rights Act, with the aim of withdrawing the country from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. Such a move would not only result in the UK’s violating its international obligations but would also affect people’s ability to protect their legal rights in ways that would disproportionately impact minority groups. These developments set a worrying tone for established democracies, with far-reaching consequences beyond the UK’s borders.
There have been similarly worrying legislative developments in France. Despite opposition from civil society, the parliament passed a controversial separatism bill in July 2021. The law introduces a binding “republican engagement contract” on associations, granting administrative authorities the power to withdraw public funding allocated to associations that fail to comply with “the principles of the French Republic.” This law disproportionately affects minority groups and targets Muslims in particular by forbidding religious practices and symbols in certain spaces such as the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women and girls. Opposition legislators referred the bill to the Constitutional Council due to these concerns, but this body gave it the green light in August 2021 after invalidating two of its provisions.
Meanwhile, the government’s attempts to amass greater surveillance powers have continued. In October 2021, the Senate adopted a modified version of a bill on criminal responsibility and internal security that deals with the authorities’ use of surveillance drones. Some of the concerning measures in the bill—such as provisions on the use of drones with cameras—were initially part of a law on global security that has sparked major protests in the country since November 2020, and some of these provisions were removed after the Constitutional Council expressed concerns about the ramifications for the right to privacy, though the rest of the law remains in effect.
Additionally, the French government has targeted civil society actors working to counter Islamophobia, as the European Network Against Racism has accused it of engaging in a “full-blown Islamophobic witch hunt.” This campaign came after the government recently targeted a Muslim youth organization known as the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations and took several steps to shut down Muslim-led organizations and other Muslim-owned establishments.
Elsewhere in Europe
There are similarly concerning developments emerging in other parts of Europe, particularly in some countries rated by the CIVICUS Monitor as having an “open” space for civil society. In Germany and the Netherlands, attacks on journalists have occurred during protests against pandemic countermeasures. Additionally, protests for environmental rights have also faced repression. For example, the climate group Ende Gelände in Germany reports that it is under surveillance by the federal domestic intelligence service and by some corresponding agencies at the state level for what the intelligence community considers to be “extremist” activities.
In Sweden, three activists associated with Extinction Rebellion Sverige are on trial for unlawful intrusion after they closed down the headquarters of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and the Green Party in an act of civil disobedience in November 2020. In May 2021, the government proposed imposing “a ban on racist organizations” to counter actors promoting right-wing extremism and persecuting ethnic minorities. However, civil society has expressed concerns that this would infringe on the freedom of association.
There have been some positive developments in some European countries, but even these have been overshadowed by negative ones. In Denmark, troubling proposals in the Security for All Danes bill were voted down in June 2021 by a majority in the Folketing (the Danish legislature) after civil society raised concerns. The bill sought to give more power to the police to take action against “insecurity-creating behaviour,” which would disproportionately affect minority groups and pose a threat to the right to peaceful assembly. In contrast, in August 2021, the government passed an emergency law to halt the longest strike in Denmark’s history. Since June 2021, more than 6,000 nurses had gone on strike to demand a fairer increase in wages than the one agreed upon by their union representatives. This move sparked concerns in a country that has traditionally used collective bargaining to reach labor agreements.
In Spain, after many years of pressure from civil society, the leftist government has begun to reform the Citizens’ Security Law, also known as the “gag law,” which poses a threat to the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression. However, civil society organizations argue that the changes fail to alter the more problematic limitations on the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to information, and human rights. For example, the government has failed to completely remove a provision for sanctions against individuals that record images of the police.
Civic freedoms continue to be imperiled in Europe, and such moves pose risks for European democracy more broadly. Governments in democracies like France, the UK, and others need to be held accountable for undermining fundamental rights. The pandemic is far from the only driver of these trends, but it has accentuated them, and this continues to be the case well beyond the pandemic’s initial, most acute emergency stage.
The much-repeated aim to “build back better” after the pandemic can only be achieved if European countries have a healthy and open civic sphere. Civil society organizations have a crucial role to play, but they need support and resources from European and international bodies. The EU must ramp up financial support for civil society and ensure that early-warning mechanisms are put in place to monitor and counter deteriorations in civic freedoms. European policymakers must act with urgency to preserve and restore civic freedoms before these encroachments become more entrenched and harder to stop.
Aarti Narsee is a civic space research officer 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.