Liberties’ third annual review of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in the EU covers 17 countries. The report, an independent piece of analysis built on information contributed by 32 rights groups across the EU, responds to the Commission’s request for information as it prepares its next annual audit of the rule of law. Liberties Rule of Law Report 2022 finds three broad trends among EU countries.

Deepening authoritarianism

First, deepening authoritarianism. As reported last year, three countries have governments that are pursuing a calculated strategy to build an authoritarian state. During 2021, the governments of Hungary and Poland forged ahead with further steps to dismantle their democracies while Slovenia continued to follow them down the same path. Legal and political pressure from the EU has thus far had little impact on these governments, which seem happy to court conflict with Brussels. The EU’s rule of law conditionality mechanism, which the governments of Hungary and Poland hope to torpedo, could turn out to be an effective deterrent if enough other EU governments approve its use.

Neglected democracy

A second trend among EU countries is democratic neglect. Our report from last year revealed a string of problems with justice systems, the state of the media, the environment for activism, corruption and systemic human rights problems that affected EU countries across the board. For the most part, governments have allowed these problems to fester or even worsen. To give a few examples:

👉 Many governments have failed to give up the emergency powers they gave themselves to deal with COVID. Researchers in half the countries examined questioned whether their governments have used their powers legally (Belgium, Croatia, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden).

👉 We record verbal, physical or legal attacks against journalists (Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) and civil society groups (Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden) in half the countries in the report.

👉 Some kind of systemic problem with rights protection was reported in 14 of the 17 countries reviewed. Examples of these include ethnic profiling by law enforcement, data protection violations, regression on equality for women and LGBTIQ persons, mistreatment of Roma and travellers, or people who migrate and poor prison conditions.

Improvements are the exception

A third trend is that where improvements have been made, these tend to happen only in a minority of countries and are sometimes unambitious. For example, we recorded progress on improving the justice system in just four countries (the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, and Slovakia). Sometimes progress comes in the form of reforms that are planned or under discussion but not yet implemented or that leave other problems with the justice system untouched. Similarly, we find little real progress on tackling corruption with reforms discussed but no concrete changes in the Czech Republic, Ireland, Italy and France.

Our recommendations to the EU

In its forthcoming report, the Commission is expected to include, for the first time, recommendations for each country on how to resolve the problems it identifies. Liberties welcomes this development, which was one of our previous recommendations to the Commission. This year’s report points out other ways that the Commission could make sure its annual report has a more tangible impact.

First, where its recommendations go unimplemented, the Commission should trigger litigation and the rule of law conditionality mechanism promptly. Second, the Commission should include analysis of systemic fundamental rights violations in its report. Otherwise, the Commission will miss the fact that many of the problems it identifies in relation to the rule of law are part of a broader failure to implement democratic standards. Third, the Commission should improve legal protection and financial support for civil society organisations to help them weather attacks, so they can continue to play their role of making democracy work properly.

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