Europe Must Defend its Values at Home and Abroad – Brussels Morning

The past two months have been a troubling and difficult time for Europe. While the war in Ukraine continues to raise concerns about the continent’s security, our attention has been divided by the outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East.

While both issues are hitting international headlines, on the back pages, and under the radar, democracy around the world continues to retreat. The core values of the Western world, freedom of speech and, most importantly, the separation of politics from law, are regularly declared and proclaimed. However, their implementation has become situational at best and completely ignored at worst.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Western politicians and scientists expected the rest of the world to become more liberal; instead, we are seeing the opposite trend. In other words, it is not Russia and Iran that are becoming more like the West, but the West is becoming more like these countries.

Political decisions have become situational and unpredictable. Under the guise of the greater good, the legal system has been weaponized to eliminate or silence political opposition.

Over the past year, we have witnessed a continuation of the mass arrests and even executions of protesters in Iran, and the mass imprisonment of dozens of activists in Russia whose only crime was protesting against an illegal and barbaric invasion. Unfortunately, we are used to this news. These acts do not surprise us; rather, they are frighteningly predictable.

Perhaps even more disturbing is how these practices have slowly crept into the modus operandi of Western nations. The leading candidate for President of the United States of America, former President Donald Trump, is facing an avalanche of indictments.

There are now 91 federal and state charges. Seven hundred and seventeen and a half – that’s the total number of years that Trump could spend in prison if he were to receive the maximum sentence for each of the alleged crimes. For much of the American electorate, the indictment of former President Trump is political persecution.

This month, Democratic experts went on television and called the opposition candidate “destructive to our democracy” and said he should be “eliminated.” Following a request made by lawmakers investigating last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, there should be legislation to ensure that Trump and others who “engaged in the uprising” can be barred from holding “federal or state, civilian or military office.”

There is a good reason why for more than two centuries the U.S. justice system has not accused a single former president. There is a good reason why for more than two centuries there have been no indictments against a leading candidate heading into the election. That reason is the clear danger this kind of action can promote. If half the country feels disenfranchised, if they believe that the judicial system is politically motivated, the result could be disastrous.

Another country that has always been considered an advanced democracy – Canada – has not done much better. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency legislation to suppress the truckers’ protest. The law gave authorities broad powers, which they used to freeze protesters’ bank accounts, ban travel to protest sites, prohibit bringing children to protests, and force truckers to remove vehicles.

Surprisingly, this was even though Canada’s national intelligence agency said the protests posed no threat to Canada’s security. The last time the law was invoked was more than 50 years ago in response to a series of terrorist attacks by militants of Quebec’s independence movement. Regardless of what one may think of the movement, the Canadian government’s response should be of concern to all of us.

For decades, Germany presented itself as a model of liberal democratic values. Germany’s success story of moving from the barbarism of Hitler’s national socialist regime to a pluralistic, prosperous, and law-abiding society was hailed as an example of what liberalism is capable of. Today, we are seeing a very different Germany. Today’s German elites are coming to terms with a faltering economy and an often dissatisfied society.

Political parties that were marginal at best have now become very strong. Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) party now has higher ratings than any of the three parties currently in power. Of course, this is nothing new. In a multi-party system, populist parties often gain ground during recessions. Many German politicians and scientists don’t see it that way.

Their solution is a total ban. A recent study by the German Institute for Human Rights examined the possibility of banning the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The study concluded that the AfD now poses such a threat to the country’s democratic order that it “could be outlawed by the Federal Constitutional Court.”

A German court ruled last year that the party should be considered a potential threat to democracy, paving the way for it to be placed under surveillance by the country’s security services. Regardless of what one thinks of the language used by the AfD, voters themselves must determine their political fate.

While there is only talk of a ban in Germany, the practice has been successfully implemented in other European countries. Ukraine and Moldova have declared their desire to become a full member of the European family. All Europeans should welcome such aspirations. However, EU membership is not just an economic decision; it is a set of values.

As for Ukraine, its tragic situation must be taken into account. The country is struggling to survive in a war, its institutions are in disarray, and its economy is on the verge of bankruptcy. In this case, it would be wrong to judge them too harshly. The political and legal situation is rather worrying, but such an analysis would be appropriate only after the war is over.

Moldova, on the other hand, should not get the same leniency. In 2023, Moldova passed a series of laws that drastically restrict the rights and freedoms of residents, punishing them for opposing the authorities. It all started with the banning of the Shor party, one of the country’s main opposition parties. The government accused the party of planning a coup.

The court decided in favor of the authorities, even though the charges were never proven. The Venice Commission cited several issues, including a lack of evidence from the state, but the Moldovan authorities implemented their decision regardless.

Such disregard for the norms of international law is unacceptable for a country that pretends to be a member of the family of European democracies. Although the Shor party appears to have undesirable ties to Russia, we cannot sacrifice our values to serve our geopolitical interests.

The EU’s silence on the behavior of our Western-friendly Moldovan partners has created an environment for further democratic backsliding that distances the candidate country from our shared values. Recent actions, such as the withdrawal of an opposition party from the elections two days before the vote or the assertion that an alternative court should be established to imprison political opponents, are undemocratic and have no place in the EU.

Recent conversations with members of the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran were instructive. Hearing about their struggles and difficulties in working to achieve gender equality in Iran’s political, social, and economic arenas was inspiring. The democratic ideals they hope to achieve are rights we have taken for granted and we allowed them to fall in the West.

From Tunisia and Senegal to Ethiopia and Bangladesh, 2023 was a record year for arrests, prosecutions, and bans of opposition politicians and parties. We cannot allow our citizens to be disappointed. There must be a clear distinction between our systems and Russia and Iran.

2023 has been a difficult year for Western democracy. If these trends continue, 2024 will be even worse.

By Ryszard Henryk Czarnecki MEP

This article first appeared in Brussels Morning Newspaper.

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