Dr Sören Keil is a political scientist who has joined the University of Fribourg's internationally-renowned Institute of Federalism in 2021 as the Academic Head of the International Research and Consulting Center. Alongside some of his colleagues at the Institute and an impressive consortium of international partners, he has just been awarded an EU project entitled “Legitimate crisis governance in Multilevel Systems” (LEGITIMULT), which shall query the impact that COVID-19 measures had on the legitimacy of democratic governance, the rule of law and the engagement of the state with its citizens.
This is extremely important research. It shall help draw conclusions about the impact on democratic legitimacy of the trade-offs that were made during the Covid-19 crisis in different aspects usually characterising functional democratic governance. Indeed, governmental entities took measures during that time that curtailed certain aspects of the democratic process and severely impacted on human rights and individual freedoms. For instance, certain governments enacted a state of emergency; parliaments sometimes did not meet anymore; the right to protest was at times revoked; decisions were often taken on the basis of taskforces made up of scientists whose expertise might not be questioned, but whose democratic raison d'être, as they were not elected, was often put in doubt. What was the impact of such measures, therefore, on democracy and its legitimacy? Further, what can we learn from this experience to hopefully do better next time, if there is a next time?
This is also of course an incredibly complex question, particularly well-suited to a collaborative EU project made up of an important consortium of researchers and research institutions. The project, coordinated by the Accademia Europea di Bolzano in South Tyrol (EURAC), involves researchers from eight other European countries as well as Canada and Switzerland, which participate in their quality as non-associated third countries within the scheme. This three-year project is funded as part of the second pillar of Horizon Europe's research programme, “Global Challenges & European Industrial Competitiveness,” which contains already-defined, top-down, open calls for research projects. The consortium was here answering an initial call on the challenges that the Covid-19 crisis had on democracy and the rule of law. The partners then decided to collect all of the Covid-19-related measures taken by no less than 31 European countries (27 EU countries as well as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and the United Kingdom), and then to gauge their impact on the political legitimacy of governmental entities. However, it soon became apparent that it was important to take into consideration more than simply decisions taken at the national level. One should – and being at the Institute of Federalism one is obliged to - also factor in the function of multiple orders of governance within the decisional process, with WHO and the EU above the states, and the regional and local governments below.
Indeed, at the time of writing their project proposal, the first publications were coming out about the impact of federalism and decentralization on democratic decision-making abilities during the crisis, and much of it at that point reflected positively on its effects. For instance, it was seen as good that a federal power should take national decisions, while the dire situation in certain provinces and areas necessitated a quick reaction from the regional government. In northern Italy, much hit at the beginning of the pandemic, mayors and municipalities were taking the decisions at times ad hoc before the central government in Rome reacted, while Scandinavian countries' strong municipalities had a big impact on policy. However, Dr Keil and other researchers were starting to realise that there were also problems to this system. One example will suffice here: while the Swiss government decided at the beginning of the pandemic to ban stadium events, this measure did not at all have an impact in Ticino, the region most hit by the pandemic at the time in Switzerland. What Ticino needed was to close the Swiss border with Italy, but it did not possess the authority to do that. The principle of proportionality is also in question: closing “the shops” does not differentiate between a shop with very little foot traffic and a big supermarket; the situation in rural areas is not the same as that in big cities; is it proportional, on an economic level, to close the schools when this decision's knock-on effect is that parents need to stay home? The question of the legitimacy of democratic governance, especially when one takes into account federalism, is therefore arduous, and the policy recommendations that the researchers on this project will articulate once their analysis is done will be tailored to different recipients.
For Dr Keil, one of the main cruxes of this research project was how to measure democratic legitimacy in times of crisis. Indeed, there are indicators of good governance stipulated by the United Nations which are usually taken to measure a government's legitimacy. However, some of these indicators, such as participation, could not completely be implemented during the crisis: it was not possible, for instance, to organise a referendum on mask wearing, and some decisions had to be made very quickly, without consultation. The project's solution is to measure the trade-offs between different dimensions of democratic governance, such as the rule of law and democratic participation, human and minority rights, trust, and economic sustainability and the measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University of Fribourg's Institute of Federalism will be in charge of two work packages within this wider project. Dr Keil, alongside his colleagues Prof. Eva Maria Belser, Thea Bächler, Dr Verena Richardier, Dr Edina Szoecsik, and Daan Smeekens, will notably be in charge of dissemination, of opening up the project's research results to a wider public, which will also give them a chance to shine a light on the Institute of Federalism. The second work package will involve analysing the rule of law and democratic participation, two vital dimensions of legitimacy. The Fribourg researchers will analyse the 31 case studies and which emergency laws and provisions each country used to react to the pandemic. They will then compare different clusters of countries, and decipher the similarities and differences in the decisions the various states took: were the rule of law decisions limited in time? who made those decisions? was democratic participation part of the process?
For this type of research into the legitimacy of democratic federalism and the rule of law, it was important that the research institution in Switzerland should itself be recognised as a legitimate, responsible and leading research entity. This is definitely the case for the Institute of Federalism, which, alongside the University of Fribourg and its Law Faculty, has a wide-ranging reputation in the fields of federalism, decentralization, constitutional design, human rights, good governance, democratization and local governance. Having this Institute as part of the bid not only helped finding project partners during the grant writing process, but also furthered the legitimacy of the project itself.
Interested in taking part in a Horizon Europe's Pillar II project? The SPR will be happy to help you in taking this step. Further, Euresearch, in partnership with the University of Fribourg's SPR, is organising an entire week (24-28 October) dedicated to the different clusters that constitute pillar II, with Euresearch specialists presenting their insights on the application requirements for the 2023-2024 European Framework Programme. Register here to take part!