Where freedom is under threat MAPPED – Hong Kong, France, Poland and the UK

EU: Overgaard-Nielsen questions democracy within Europe

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A lethal pandemic has held the world to ransom for almost two years. Millions have lost their lives to the health crisis. At the same time, violent conflict has ravaged many areas of the world. Defenders of democracy have sustained heavy losses in their struggle against authoritarian regimes with many nations falling at the wayside to tyranny. Express.co.uk speaks to Ewen Stockbridge Sime, chief executive officer at the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance firm 360iSR, about the impact of democratic decline on a global scale.

Democracy was dealt a crushing blow in 2020 with almost 70 percent of countries covered by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index recording a decline in their overall score.

The global average score fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006 – the report finding just 8.4 percent of the world’s population live in a full democracy.

More than a third of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule, according to the report.

The deterioration of the global score was driven by a decline in the average regional score everywhere in the world, especially large falls in the “authoritarian-regime”-dominated regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa.

China and Russia are considered as the leading international influences accountable for abuses.

In particular, China ramped up its efforts in 2019 and 2020 in regards to the demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties and legal autonomy.

Hong Kong erupted in street protests in 2019 over a proposed law that would have made it easier for China to extradite residents to the mainland.

The demonstrations ignited a broader pro-democracy movement which continued into 2020.

On November 11, a Hong Kong activist, Ma Chun-man, known as Captain America 2.0, was jailed for almost six years under the controversial national security law. Ma was the second person to be jailed under the law since it was passed in 2020.

Mr Stockbridge Sime said the issue with the Hong Kong crisis in the territory is governed by China, “therefore the democracy fighters there are (in the eyes of the Chinese) terrorists”.

There were no “full democracies” in the Eastern European region in 2020, according to the Democracy Index report.

Only Albania moved from a flawed democracy to a hybrid regime, leaving 13 flawed democracies (including 11 EU member states), eight hybrid regimes and three authoritarian regimes – including Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin consolidated his hold on power by implementing constitutional reforms, which enabled him to remain in power for another 12 years beyond his current term, which is due to end in 2024.

Democracy in European countries is at the highest risk where the fall of those countries would benefit Mr Putin, according to Mr Stockbridge Sime.

The expert, who has worked with the Royal Netherlands Air Force and NATO, told Express.co.uk: “The Russian leader is looking for legacy at the moment.

“The easiest will be these democracies which have a large proportion of first-generation Russians, countries such as Latvian and Estonia.

“These countries represent an expansion of NATO and EU influence and therefore an affront to the Russian Government.

“They also represent NATO perhaps overstepping the mark and absorbing the buffer states too quickly.”

He added Russia has been actively destabilising these countries for years in the hope the nations will either, entirely or in part, return to a Russian-biased Government through democratic processes.

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There are several other cases of European countries where democracy is blatantly under attack.

The recent court battles in Poland are a classic case, with the nation threatening “assertive” action against the EU if it does not release recovery funds.

The bloc is using this money to play hardball with Poland over the ongoing legal battle.

The European Court of Justice ruled in July that the Polish Government should suspend the activity of its own Supreme Court.

Poland ignored the ruling and announced a daily penalty of a million euros.

The nation’s Deputy Funds and Regional Policy Minister Waldemar Buda said if the European Commission does not approve of the recovery fund plan for the nation by the end of the year, Warsaw could take steps to undermine key EU initiatives such as the Fit for 55 climate package.

He said: “If we don’t settle the topic by the end of the year, our willingness to negotiate, the dynamics, and willingness to make concessions will be lower in the new year.”

The argument between the EU and Poland is “as much about morality and ethics as it is about military and national security,” according to Mr Stockbridge Sime.

A key problem in the ongoing Poland row is the migrant crisis at the Poland-Belarus border.

Mr Stockbridge Sime told Express.co.uk: “A migrant leaves their home because of fear, hunger, poverty, oppression etc to find a better life.

“In the Western liberal democracies, some applaud this endeavour whilst other fear it.

“The social opponent can be self-motivated or they can be manipulated. The former becomes a social and political/ethical issue, the latter is something more.

“Poland is insinuating that the migrants are being manipulated by Belorussia and therefore by Moscow.”

The expert also said within Europe France and Germany are “the jewels in the crown”.

He told Express.co.uk: “Without them, the EU will fold and Europe will once again become a collection is disparate nations that will be cheaper to trade with (as there will be no bargaining at a scale the EU can muster) and easier to defeat militarily.”

The recent clashes between the EU and other nations indicate the extent to which democracy can crumble quickly if not protected.

Even nations with the most firmly established institutions could see democratic norms eroded over time if there is not a backlash.

The ongoing battles in the fishing and Northern Ireland rows have escalated in recent days with tensions worsening.

The mounting animosity has once again prompted speculation the UK could hit the nuclear button and invoke Article 16.

The reconnaissance expert said Brexit was a clear example of “narrative warfare” on both sides.

He told Express.co.uk: “The narrative which won was the right wing immigrant narrative.

“We are not an example to Poland or China other than manipulation of the population by a third party can lead to regime change, as happened in the UK, and should be treated as a threat.”

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