Europe in crisis mode over pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has plunged Europe into crisis-mode again. How the bloc responds to the emergency is being closely scrutinised. From dealing with the outbreak of disinformation online, to passing emergency measures that give sweeping powers to the EU member states' ruling parties, the European Union faces unprecedented challenges.
I discussed these issues with Věra Jourová, the Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency. Most of us are temporarily giving up some of our freedoms to help fight the virus. I began by asking her how far countries should go down this route in seeking to protect the public's wellbeing.
“At this moment, we have 20 countries which have these special emergency regimes. Your question is about how far they should go. There is a principle that, even in an emergency situation, the measures taken by the governments which have strengthened their powers should only be the ones that are strictly necessary, proportionate and limited by a concrete deadline.
"And (they also need) to be under very strict parliamentary control, which means the control from the citizen’s side through their representatives in the parliament. And of course, also, the media have to do their job.
"So these are the parameters and that's what we are watching now. We are monitoring the regimes in all the member states.”
I pointed out that some governments would like to track the publics' mobile phones to monitor the potential spread of the pandemics. I asked if this led to data protection worries from her point of view.
She said that was not currently the case:
“Not at this moment. It applies also to the use of these tools: we want the people to give specific informed consent for being part of the use of such tools and for various digital solution, which we see evolving in almost all the member states, the same thing applies.
"As for the emergency regimes: they must not be with us forever, because these are specific measures for an emergency period. “
End of the "old normal"?
Does the Vice President think that the coronavirus will reshape European democracies?
“I think that this is a gamechanger in many ways. The optimists say that after the crisis, we need to start creating something new, especially the digital world, which is now helping so much (to deal with) this crisis; that should gain a new dynamism.
"But on the question of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, I would really plea for coming back to the "old normal", because we had and we still have the best system which we have ever invented for society.
"Dictatorships have shown in history that they are against the people and there were too many victims. That’s why we really have to try hard to keep democracy, to keep the limitation of (emergency) powers in the member states by their own decisions.
"This is very important, that we come back to this. And speaking about coming back, just a last sentence: the extraordinary regimes do not mean that we are somehow stepping outside of the democratic regimes.”
I asked her about the issue of Hungary and the lack of clarity over when and how the emergency measures introduced there would be lifted. I wondered if she still considered Hungary to be a functioning democracy, to which she gave a careful response:
“This is a tricky question and I cannot give you a direct answer. I just want to tell you that when you read the (new Hungarian) law, there is no specific deadline. And when you discuss it with our Hungarian partners, they are telling us that the parliament can stop the emergency regime any time.
"So we will have to wait and see and we will have to look at how the increased emergency powers of the government in this period are applied in practice. And when you read the (Hungarian) law, it is quite comparable with other laws providing for the emergency regimes in the (other) states.
"But the context is difficult, because there was (already) low confidence in the past towards the Hungarian government and the prime minister.
"You know that Hungary is already under the special procedure of Article 7. So when you read the law in this context, of course, it tells us that we should remain vigilant and look at the application of it.”
I asked her about the much-criticised initial reaction from the EU Commission to the Hungarian measures, which were considered too soft by many. For example, the first statement on the issue didn't even mention Hungary by name.
She defended the Commission's approach:
"I think the statement that was given is a very important summary of the principles; the principle of necessity, proportionality and the time limit and I don't shy away from speaking about the downsides and the problems that I see in Hungary.
"I really want to do my job with full responsibility, but without becoming any kind of activist, one who will somehow go beyond the boundaries.
Coronavirus "should not kill democracy"
What, then, can the European Union do to ensure that the rule of law will not be another victim of this epidemic?
“I always say that by killing the coronavirus, we should not also kill democracy and fundamental rights in Europe. We simply must not rely on democracy and a full system of fundamental rights automatically coming back. We have to be vigilant. We have to be proactive.
"It's time to also use a new instrument which has not been adopted yet; by which I mean the conditionality of EU money and the principle of the rule of law. So we have proposed this conditionality and if somebody does not understand why we need to uphold our values, maybe they will understand the language of money. And so I think that this combination of tools will be useful in the future."
Fake news dangers
I told her that it was beyond question that fake news is a major problem, especially for vulnerable and disadvantaged people who may be more suspectible to it. I asked her if she thought that the administrators of social media sites and indeed the European Union were doing enough to protect these people?
“The people who are under pressure, they can be easier to manipulate, easier to threaten and can be more susceptible to being offered very immoral and sometimes even illegal (messages).
"This is this is the time to act against all of these unfair practices. This is what we work on to give the priority to the trustworthy information and to minimise the appearance and the impact of disinformation.”
I asked which countries she considered to be the most active in spreading disinformation and how the EU was fighting this.
“In its latest report and also in its previous reports, our External Action Service identified the very intensive production of disinformation from pro-Kremlin sources. It also continues over the current crisis. We now see the propaganda against the EU amplified.
"We will never fight with the same weapons. I believe we should not use any kind of dirty propaganda against those who produce this (material). We have to fight it by providing the people with trustworthy information such as the facts and figures, which are easy to verify. I think that this is the best response."