In times of confinement and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, public opinion is focusing on the short-term and immediate matters of public health: flattening the curve of the dissemination of the virus and the response of the national health services to the unfolding tragedy.
If these are (understandably) the obvious points of immediate concern, another phenomenon which is taking place should not be overlooked, as it may have serious and deep effects in the medium/long term: the consolidation of autocratic regimes in EU Member States.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its emergency rules are the perfect ground for autocrats and wannabe autocrats to flourish: society is open to accepting without much protest strong moves from the Executive, justified with higher reasons of public health; freedom of movement is strictly limited and organised protests are banned, thus preventing opposition movements to organise and mobilise citizens.
The warning signs coming from Poland and Hungary were numerous and old.
The reaction of EU institutions, however, was (as in many other fields) timid and ineffective, blocked by short-term political tactics and strict unanimity rules.
The measures taken in Hungary were the last of a serious of announced steps towards an authoritarian regime.
The government now rules by decree and the possibility of any real control of the Executive by the Legislative of Judicial powers is totally excluded.
In Poland, the PiS ruling party is trying to seize this opportunity to put in action its long announced plan to take control over all the institutions of the Polish State, including (and especially) the Judiciary.
The decision not to postpone the presidential elections that will take place on May 10th can only be characterised as one of the most antidemocratic moves seen in any European country in recent decade.
If the law proposed by the ruling party is approved, voting will take place via mail, with a country under lockdown, with no possibility of opposition candidates to campaign, while the president running for re-election tours the country announcing measures to combat the virus.
In these extraordinary circumstances, the Judiciary will be called to play a decisive role in the protection and defence of the core values of the European Union.
As in the past, where politicians failed or didn’t have the courage to act, the European Court of Justice will have to step in and take the lead in stating the fundamental principles on which the Union is founded – respect for fundamental rights, democracy and independence of powers.
The recent decisions imposing interim measures against Poland and declaring contrary to EU Law some of the measures taken in the Judiciary already point out what the future will bring.
So, in the aftermath of this pandemic, other than financial or economic debates, the EU will be facing a more decisive and fundamental question: can the EU live with autocratic regimes in its member States?
We should start right now to worry about the answer we will all be willing to give.