Coronavirus and the Future of Democracy in Europe

The pandemic raises difficult questions about whether liberal democracies can adequately protect their citizens.

Expert comment Updated 1 April 2020 Published 31 March 2020 3 minute READ

Hans Kundnani

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

Police officers wearing protective face masks patrol during coronavirus lockdown enforcement in Wroclaw, Poland. Photo by Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Police officers wearing protective face masks patrol during coronavirus lockdown enforcement in Wroclaw, Poland. Photo by Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

It is less than a month since we published our research paper on the future of democracy in Europe. But it feels like we now live in a different world. The coronavirus has already killed thousands of people in Europe, led to an unprecedented economic crisis and transformed daily life – and in the process raised difficult new questions about democracy.

The essence of our argument in the paper was that democracy in Europe should be deepened. But now there is a much more basic question about whether democracies can protect their citizens from the pandemic.

There has already been much discussion about whether authoritarian states will emerge stronger from this crisis than democracies. In particular, although the virus originated in China and the government initially seemed to struggle to deal with it, it was able to largely contain the outbreak in Hubei and deploy vast resources from the rest of the country to deal with it.

Come through the worst

China may have come through the worst of the health crisis – though a second wave of infections as restrictions are lifted is possible – and there have already been three times as many deaths in Italy, and twice as many in Spain, as in China (although there is increasing doubt about the accuracy of China’s figures).

However, it is not only authoritarian states that seem so far to have coped relatively well with the virus. In fact, some East Asian democracies appear to have done even better than China. At the time of writing South Korea, with a population of 51.5 million, has had only 144 death rates so far. Taiwan, with a population of nearly 24 million, has had only two deaths.

So rather than thinking in terms of the relative performance of authoritarian states and democracies, perhaps instead we should be asking what we in Europe can learn from East Asian democracies.

It is not yet clear why East Asian democracies were able to respond so effectively, especially as they did not all follow exactly the same approach. Whereas some quickly imposed restrictions on travel (for example, Taiwan suspended flights from China and then prohibited the entry of people from China and other affected countries) and quarantines, others used extensive testing and contact tracing, often making use of personal data collected from citizens.

Whatever the exact strategy they used, though, they did all act quickly and decisively – and the collective memory of the SARS outbreak in 2003 and other recent epidemics seems to have played a role in this. For example, following the SARS outbreak, Taiwan created a central epidemic command center. Europe, meanwhile, was hardly affected by SARS – and we seem to have assumed the coronavirus would be the same (although that does not quite explain why we were still so slow to react in February even after it was clear that the virus had spread to Italy).

However, while the relative success of East Asian democracies may have something to do with this recent experience of epidemics, it may also have something to do with the kind of democracies they are. It may be a simple matter of competence – the bureaucracy in Taiwan and South Korea may function better, and in particular in a more coordinated way, than in many European countries.

But it may also be more than that. In particular, it could be that East Asian democracies have a kind of ‘authoritarian residue’ that has helped in the initial response to this crisis. South Korea and Taiwan are certainly vibrant democracies – but they are also relatively new democracies compared to many in Europe. As a result, citizens may have a different relationship with the state and be more willing to accept sudden restrictions of freedoms, in particular on movement, and the use of personal data – at least in a crisis.

In that sense, the pandemic may be a challenge not to democracy as such but to liberal democracy in particular – in other words, a system of popular sovereignty together with guaranteed basic rights, such as including freedom of association and expression and checks and balances on executive power. There may now be difficult trade-offs to be made between those basic rights and security – and, after the experience of coronavirus, many citizens may choose security.

This brings us back to the issues we discussed in our research paper. Even before the coronavirus hit, there was already much discussion of a crisis of liberal democracy. In particular, there has been a debate about whether liberalism and democracy, which had long been assumed to go together, were becoming decoupled.

In particular, ‘illiberal democracies’ seemed to be emerging in many places including Europe (although, as we discuss in the paper, some analysts argue that the term is incoherent). This model of ‘illiberal democracy’ – in other words, one in which elections continue to be held but some individual rights are curtailed – may emerge stronger from this new crisis.

It is striking that Singapore – also seen as responding successfully to coronavirus – was seen as a paradigmatic ‘illiberal democracy’ long before Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán embraced the idea. In particular, there is little real opposition to the People’s Action Party, which has been in power since 1959.

Since this new crisis began, Orbán has gone further in suspending rights in Hungary. On March 11, he declared a state of emergency – as many other European countries have also done. But he has now gone further by passing legislation that allows him to govern by decree indefinitely and make it illegal to spread misinformation that undermines the government’s response to the pandemic. Clearly, this is a further decisive step in the deconsolidation of liberal democracy in Hungary.

So far, though, much of the discussion, particularly in the foreign policy world, has focused mainly on how to change popular perceptions that liberal democracies are failing in this crisis. For example, High Representative Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign minister, wrote last week of a ‘battle of narratives’.

But this misses the point. It is not a matter of spinning the European model, but of taking seriously the substantial questions raised by the coronavirus about the ability of liberal democracies to adequately protect their citizens.