Democracy and the Rule of Law in the European Union

Author (Corporate)
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Series Details Number 1
Publication Date 2021
ISSN 2365-9661
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For politicians across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic is a stress test for governance. Curbing the coronavirus pandemic calls for swift and strong executive action. Indeed, many government leaders have resorted to extraordinary and, in some cases, draconian measures, which include placing restrictions on individual movement, introducing physical distancing requirements, and mandating businesses to close. And while lockdown measures across the EU clearly derive from public health needs, they also open up avenues for states to place further restrictions on fundamental democratic rights.

Current measures run the risk of allowing leaders to engage in more lasting executive overreach and thus undermine key liberal democratic norms in society. In some EU member states, we have seen protests and unrest in the streets, as well as the outright rejection among some citizens of the virus’s existence and the health threat it poses. Balancing the duty to protect public health with the right to dissent and protest is no easy task for any state actor and has potentially long-term implications for public trust in government action. Concerns about pandemic-related democratic backsliding and the risk of weakening public support for appropriate measures underscore the importance of examining how European citizens view democracy and the rule of law.

In this report, we examine not only how European citizens evaluate the state of democracy in their country and the EU more generally, but also what they think characterizes a good democracy. This report addresses three questions regarding EU citizens’ perceptions in this regard:

  1. What are the most important characteristics of democracy?
  2. How well does democracy function in their own country and in the EU?
  3. To what extent do they trust their country’s government or the EU with regard to delivering an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

This report seeks to answer these questions by presenting evidence based on a survey conducted in December 2020 in which we interviewed just under 12,000 citizens across the EU. In doing so, we present two sets of data. One for the European Union as a whole, another for seven individual member states (i.e., Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain).

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