Between July 2016 and June 2017, the overall situation regarding rule of law, in the 30 countries of Europe and Central Asia which were in 2017 monitored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation`s project Freedom Barometer Europe Edition, showed signs of small improvement, albeit from - in average - low starting point. That is, the situation has not been as bad as intuition and media headlines might lead one to believe, yet it is still too far from being satisfactory. Besides, some of the most recent trends, as observed by other relevant researchers, are rather worrisome than optimistic.
In some countries, mainly new EU members (such as Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia or Czechia), or even old EU members (Austria, Greece), the rule of law has in one year improved at least by 1/30. Almost all progress has to thank to the improvements in the position, professionalism and/or independence of judiciary (either during the past year alone, or as a cumulative result of past reforms). Notably, Latvia`s improvement in the anti-graft struggle also contributed to its serious overall improvement in the rule of law.
On the other hand, considerable setbacks were noted in Turkey, especially in the independence of judiciary and human rights. In Hungary, steady decline has been noted in all three aspects of the rule of law (judiciary, corruption and human rights). In numerous countries, the rise in one aspect (usually more independence of judiciary) was neutralized by a fall in others (more corruption and/or worse respect for human rights).
More economic freedom means less corruption
A few EU founding members monitored by Freedom Barometer, such as Netherlands, Belgium, or Germany, continue to demonstrate how a developed social market economy without excessive government intervention, accompanied by developed state (e.g. anti-corruption bodies, or independent courts and prosecutors) and non-governmental (e.g. anti-graft watchdogs, or investigation journalism) institutions, together lead to nearly corruption-clean countries.
But there are also newcomers to the club of the less-corrupted. In a few transition countries, most notably in Estonia and Georgia (but also Lithuania, which is trying to catch up with them), bold economic reformers had disabled the excessive government intervention into economy, thus narrowing the ground for corruption and easing the task to the classical anti-corruption bodies. While supported by the strong civil society and free media, they have together brought their countries to higher levels of transparency and integrity.
Ups and downs of human rights
Human rights highly depend on political freedom and rule of law. If there is no political will and no democratic mechanism to protect and advance human rights, and if there is no equal judicial protection of each and every individual, those are at the mercy of the political elite and their overall situation is mottled at best while catastrophic at worst. Some of the most authoritarian regimes among the monitored countries (such as those in Russia, Azerbaijan, or Tajikistan) are at the same time the worst ones in their attitude towards human rights. Trends towards authoritarianism often coincide with heavy breaches of human rights, such as in Turkey after the failed coup as of 15-16 July 2016. Populists who take against independent judiciary and media in their countries (such as in Hungary and recently also in Poland) soon tend to turn also against other human rights and freedoms.
An added value of the Freedom Barometer is in that it underlines the linkage between economic freedoms on one and political freedoms and human rights on the other side. If the state possesses or controls too much of the wealth created in a country, no political or civic opposition can survive on the longer run, nor can efficient human rights` protection mechanisms do. On the other hand, de-monopolization and de-regulation of some sectors of economy (as seen in post-2015 Greece) have correlated with more media freedom, thus more freedom of expression and better human rights situation in general.
Position of LGBTs – a litmus test?
Finally, unlike many divergent or even worrisome trends, there has been also an optimistic one throughout Europe – slow albeit steady recognition of the equality of LGBT citizens.
In the observed period, same-sex marriages were fully legalized in Germany and Slovenia, and partially in Estonia and Armenia. Recognition of same-sex unions (in Lithuania), improved adoption rights or procedures (in Germany, Greece and Macedonia), various other anti-discrimination regulation adopted (e.g. in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Belgium, etc), or ascension of declared LGBTs to high political posts (e.g. to the position of the PM in Serbia), were additional gains. In many transition countries, until recently bastions of not least homophobia but of the silence on it, at least through freer pride rallies LGBTs are able to raise the issues of their legal and/or societal equality.
Turkey seems to be the only exception, a true counter-example, whereby trends towards further social marginalization of the LGBTs are visible, in contrast to the centuries-old traditions of relative tolerance.
However this issue affects a relatively small percentage of people, it is a powerful indicator of the overall trends in treating minorities, and of the freedom of the individual in general, thus of human rights trends in future.
Other recently published reports
The 30 countries monitored by the Freedom Barometer are a part of a wider world. In it, as the Human Rights Watch World Report 2017 showed, various old and new challenges to human rights are present. Authoritarian trends in many countries are undermining checks and balances, rule of law and the previously achieved level of protection of human rights. Populism is in the rise, including in the oldest and strongest democracies. Terrorism on one, while xenophobia on the other hand, jointly endanger security and fundamental values of civilization, as well as erode the rule of law and human rights. Counter-terrorism laws sometimes overreach, thus jeopardizing basic human rights. Similar is the case with the regulation of Internet – however it is necessary to suppress hate speech and recruiting for terrorism, it is also vital to have any government measure in the field remained limited, monitored, in proportion with perils, and temporary.
Freedom House (FH), in its most recent report titled Freedom of the World 2018, also warns on serious threats against democracy and freedom worldwide, speaking about a “democracy in crisis”. While none of the 30 countries monitored by Freedom Barometer are listed by the FH as “the worst of the worst”, some have nevertheless shown a considerable fall in democratic standards – primarily Turkey (which moved from the “Partly Free” to “Not Free” group of countries), but also Hungary and Serbia, where various anti-democratic trends were observed. Finally, two countries were mentioned as being at a crossroad: Georgia, itself in a danger of a back slide, and Macedonia, itself in a hope of a breakthrough towards more inclusive while less corrupt government, as well as towards faster EU integration. As the FH points out in one of the subtitles of its report, “some doors open as others close”.