The rise of power politics

Ombeline Lemarchal // 27 July 2020


The Covid-19 pandemic has not only led to a health and economic crisis across Europe, but also a political one. Political leaders have enacted strong emergency measures to limit the spread of the virus, often severely restricting civil liberties. In Poland or Hungary, some of these emergency measures have even undermined the rule of law. Can we revert this trend of political illiberalism and roll back the emergency legislation once the crisis is over, or will European countries continue down this path of powerful politicians and restrictive measures?

Crises often lead to greater governmental overreach, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different. Strong actions were needed, but increasingly worrying is how many politicians across Europe have used this unprecedented situation as an excuse to extend their own power under the guise of public safety emergency measures. Poland is a stark example of this. To limit the spread of the disease, the ruling party disregarded the emergency state included in the constitution since 1997, choosing instead to create other emergency restrictive measures which have no legal basis. This was a politically motivated decision, as the constitutional state of emergency does not allow elections to proceed. In a situation similar to China and Hong Kong, the pandemic was clearly abused by the ruling party to advance their own efforts, argues Marek Tatala, vice-president of the Civil Development Forum in Poland.

France and Ukraine offer less dramatic examples of such governmental overreach. With one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, state power has also increased immensely in France during the pandemic, says Cécile Philippe, president of the Institut Economique Molinari in France. Ukraine, which is facing the additional difficulty of a foreign power war, has faced a similar situation as the economy was paralysed after a ban on public transportation.

But how can we reverse this trend and prevent further encroachment of civil liberties when this crisis is behind us? Marek Tatala, Cécile Phillipe, and Nataliya Melnyk share their hopes for the future of civil liberties in their country.

For Cécile Phillipe, just as the anti-terrorism and surveillance measures that were implemented after 9/11 were never lifted, these new health measures such as bio-surveillance are here to stay. The culture war that has been happening across Western countries, has led to the emergence of new hate speech legislation that further threaten civil liberties and freedom of speech. The situation does not look so optimistic in France. Marek Tatala remains more hopeful despite an ongoing deterioration of the rule of law in Poland, as the elections will be crucial to determine in which direction the country will be headed. But in Poland as in Ukraine, civil society has little trust in governmental institutions not to abuse such measures.

Many European governments have failed to consider other and perhaps more efficient methods that do not only take into account one criteria to handle the crisis. This is partly explained by European countries’ lack of experience in dealing with a pandemic on such a magnitude, but we must learn from this crisis to avoid taking such drastic measures when the next crisis hits. For this, we must learn from the Asian tigers or even Germany’s bottom-up decentralised response to the crisis. These countries did not introduce a lockdown at any stage of the pandemic and were able to tackle it with more economical and efficient measures such as mass testing. If we are to devise a better response package, there is a clear need for a decentralised reorganization of power.

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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