6 November 2018, Brussels, Belgium: “What Makes for a Healthy Democracy?”

After the European Justice Stakeholders Forum, EUR President Vivien Whyte and  Treasurer Catherine Assioma attended an event organized by the International Bar Association at the European Parliament on “What makes for a healthy democracy?”

Mr Michał Boni MEP hosted the event, which included keynote speeches from several other European political leaders.

Mr Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, called on people not to forget the lessons of history. Democracy, Human Rights and the rule of law are there to protect the minority. He insisted that equality before the law was the basis for democracy and expressed his worries that in some countries democracy is now being defined differently. Attacks on the institutions, the judiciary, the media are part of a pattern. Our vision of society is now at stake. Human Rights must be protected. Mr Claude Moraes MEP, chair of the LIBE Commission, regretted the « Faustian trade » that illiberal democracies made with their people, sacrificing liberty for stability. He stated that there could be no economic growth without liberal democracy and insisted on the need for jurists, civil society and activists to work together on promoting liberal democracy.

Mr Martin Šolc, President of the International Bar Association, presented the videos that his organisation has created to make the greater public aware of rule of law concerns. These vidéos are available free of charge on: https://www.ibanet.org/rule-of-law-videos-en.aspx. President Šolc encouraged the participants to share them freely. They are not subject to copyright.

The next speaker was Mr Philip Bittner, Head of the Legal Department at the Austrian Permanent Representation to the European Union. He insisted on the need for a free press and the responsibility of Member States to ensure the protection of journalists.

The Council of Europe was represented by Mr Matjaz Gruden, Director of Democratic Participation, who wondered about the lack of resilience against deliberate attempts to subjugate institutions. He stressed the need for people to be educated in order to take care of the rule of law and suggested that a European framework of reference for democratic intelligence be created on the model of the existing framework for languages.

Professor Wojciech Sadurski, from the University of Sydney stressed that the main threat to democracy came from « elective authoritarians ». Free and fair elections require civil and political rights (free assembly, free association, free speech) and the separation of powers. According to him, there is no such thing as an illiberal democracy since there is no democracy without civil and political rights and separation of powers. Separation of powers is the most important, it’s a safeguard because there is no democracy when power is in the hand of one person only. He insisted on the fact that the rule of law was much more important than the rule by law because rulers are constraint by law.

European Commission Director Emmanuel Crabit stated that a healthy democracy required the rule of law and safeguards, the effective respect of fundamental rights (including the right to privacy and data protection) as well as online transparency in the context of electoral campaigns.

He expressed his wish for increased cooperation with civil society.

Exchanges with the audience revealed, among other things, proposals to link the allocation of EU funding to the promotion of respect for the rule of law.

Closing the meeting, Mr Boni stated that we should consider how to be together, how to tackle disinformation and the « ignorance » of people who are not involved in real democracy, in schools and in public debate or media. He expressed a sense of urgency, comparing the current situation to the one that existed in Europe in the early 1930s.