Inaugural Webinar of the ELI Charter of Fundamental Constitutional Principles

11.03.2024

On 11 March 2024, a stellar panel explored the topic of liberal democracy, as part of the seven-part series dedicated to the above Charter.

ELI President, Pascal Pichonnaz (Professor, University of Fribourg) opened the webinar by welcoming speakers and attendees, setting the stage for engaging discussions. He outlined that the purpose of the series of webinars is to focus on ELI’s Charter of Fundamental Constitutional Principles of a European Democracy, a groundbreaking report published by ELI in February 2024. The full ELI Charter, which is yet to be copyedited and formatted, is available here.

Project Co-Reporter, Takis Tridimas (Professor, King’s College London), provided a brief overview of the ELI Charter, laying the groundwork for further discussions. The ELI Charter embodies the essence of contemporary European constitutionalism, consolidating a comprehensive set of standards, rights, principles and state-obligations. Together, these elements form the foundation of well-governed democracies. Tridimas underscored that in a liberal democracy, governance by majority rule must always be tempered by the protection of fundamental rights, making it a non-partisan undertaking.  He also highlighted the relentless assaults on liberal democracy, both from external adversaries and those resulting from internal challenges, urging a collective introspection on how best to safeguard it.

According to Ralph Kaessner (Head of Unit Justice and Home Affairs, Council of the EU), the ELI Charter thus emerges as a pivotal reference for the future. He explained that the enhancement of the EU’s toolbox, designed to safeguard liberal democracy, has been at the forefront of European discourse for some time.  Among the developments during the last 10 years, Kaessner highlighted significant shifts, with Member States now unequivocally recognising the indispensability of upholding the rule of law, democracy and the protection of fundamental right for the smooth functioning of the internal market, among other goals. Kaessner also emphasised key mechanisms such as Article 7 TEU and the Commission’s Rule of Law Reports, along with regular ministerial discussions on rule of law. In the face of future EU enlargement, he stressed Member States’ unwavering commitment to maintaining standards. Kaessner also pointed to areas where the EU can still refine its approach, saying that the battle to protect liberal democracy and the rule of law is primarily political and not only legal. 

Daniel Popescu (Head of the Promoting Local Democracy Department of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe) delved into the topic of elections, highlighting key trends. One concerning trend, he noted, was the decline in election turnout, which he described as a  ‘worrisome trend’ and may reflect democracy backsliding. To combat this trend, he recommended addressing gaps between citizen’s expectations and government actions and advocated for greater avenues for citizen participation in assemblies and consultations. Additionally, he observed the growing interest in electronic voting, prompting the Council of Europe to develop recommendations in this area.

Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska (Senior Advisor at Central Europe Programme of the Prague Civil Society Center) delivered a compelling analysis on the critical issue of media freedom and freedom of expression. Grounding her discussing in Principle 5 of the ELI Charter, she drew attention to Poland and Hungary. Bychawska-Siniarska identified the root cause of turbulences to be the absence a robust media frameworks adhering to EU and Council of Europe standards, essential for upholding the preservation of those associated guarantees. This vacuum, she argued, has allowed political forces to hijack public media outlets and regulatory bodies. She further highlighted the detrimental impact of competition authorities blocking media mergers and the misuse of criminal and civil law to diminish freedom of speech through strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). While expressing optimism about the recent adoption of the EU Anti-SLAPP Directive, she warned of the need to scrutinise government implementation of the Directive, since governments may not always uphold democratic principles.

Róbert Ragnar Spanó (Partner at Gibson Dunn, Former President of the European Court of Human Rights)  highlighted ELI Charter’s dual role: consolidating established principles flowing from constitutions, while introducing innovative elements. He then analysed the root causes of the backlash against democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. Among other things, Spanó pointed to the perception of human rights and democracy as Western neo-colonialism, as well as the correlation between the backsliding of liberal democracies and socioeconomic inequalities exacerbated by market capitalism. He stressed the importance of addressing these issues from an early educational age, emphasising that solutions cannot rely on legal frameworks alone. Additionally, Spanó reflected on the digital revolution, advocating for it to be embraced, albeit through adequate regulatory frameworks.

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion.

More information about the project is available here.

The recording of the webinar is available below.

Other webinars in the series:

  • Webinar II on the Rule of Law – 25 March 2024 (recording here)
  • Webinar III on Judicial Independence – 8 April 2024 (register here)
  • Webinar IV on Dignity and Equality – 22 April 2024 (register here)
  • Webinar V on Checks and Balances: Accountability – 6 May 2024 (register here)
  • Webinar VI on Protection of Fundamental Rights – 16 May 2024 (register here)
  • Webinar VII on Constitutional Integrity – 17 June 2024 (register here)