Pandemic populism and authoritarianism discussed at #EuropeLF21

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COVID-19-induced international travel restrictions compelled Atlas Network to host each of its four Regional Liberty Forums on an online platform in 2021—all back-to-back during the same week in June. The week’s Europe event (#EuropeLF21) commenced with an insightful conversation on the pandemic-related restrictions devastating many European economies. Despite the challenges of meeting virtually rather than in person, 161 individuals from think tanks and civil society groups representing 34 countries contributed to an engaging and constructive event. Forum participants joined in the excitement with winners when the recipients of the Regional Liberty Award and Think Tank Shark Tank award were announced.

Each session of the 2021 Europe Liberty Forum will remain available online, and the highlights are below.

Welcome Remarks

The forum kicked off with a welcome from Atlas Network President Matt Warner and Svetla Kostadinova, executive director of the local co-host, Institute for Market Economics in Bulgaria. Kostadinova spoke on the need for personal responsibility, rather than government mandates, to build a better society.

After opening remarks, Atlas Network’s Jack Shannon spoke with several leaders in the European freedom movement about what the pandemic has meant for everyday life and personal and economic liberty in Europe. Elena Leontejeva of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute said that many businesses have turned to the government for help, leading to both dependency and a lack of transparency. Constantinos Saravakos of KEFiM in Greece detailed how governments have taken the pandemic as an excuse to seize more control in all parts of society.

Latchezar Bogdanov from Institute for Market Economics in Bulgaria expressed optimism that citizens were beginning to hold governments more accountable after heavy-handed responses left government more involved in their lives. Carlo Stagnaro from Istituto Bruno Leoni in Italy pointed out that the pandemic lockdowns have exposed the costliness of regulations in the lives of everyday people.

Big Ideas: Pandemic Populism

Led by Juan Pina of Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad in Spain, the Big Ideas session of the 2021 Europe Liberty Forum focused on how those—both on the right and the left—who oppose liberty have seized the opportunity presented by the pandemic to advance their agendas.

Pina was joined by Marek Tatala from Civil Development Forum in Poland, Petar Ganev of Institute for Market Economics in Bulgaria, and Borja Breña from Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad in Spain to discuss the shifting Overton Window of political dialogue away from authoritarianism.

The panelists agreed that the pandemic represented a terrible opportunity for governments to shake off many of their constitutional restraints, like public debt limits in Poland. If populism is allowed to dictate more policy, many European countries run the risk of weakening their trade links with other countries, losing their spots as global economic powers.

Interview with Anders Åslund

In the day one finale of #EuropeLF21, Atlas Network’s Dr. Tom Palmer interviewed Dr. Anders Åslund—a Swedish economist and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Åslund is a leading expert on Eastern European economies, and he spoke on how those regions have changed and improved since the fall of the USSR.

Dr. Åslund said that Russia’s deeply flawed post-Soviet reforms have seriously held it back, as corruption and authoritarianism are still rampant. Putin has exacerbated the situation with increased military expenditures amid falling GDP. Russia is, in certain aspects, returning to its Soviet ways, he said.

Åslund opined that the European Union failed in its vaccine response to COVID-19 because no one was willing to step up and take responsibility, and vaccine procurement fell behind countries such as the United States and Israel.

Regional Liberty Award

After Dr. Palmer and Dr. Åslund’s discussion, Students For Liberty Belarus was announced as the winner of the 2021 Europe Liberty Award and its $7,000 prize.

Piotr Markielau of Students For Liberty Belarus accepts the 2021 Europe Liberty Award.

Through their “Free Belarus: Building a Groundswell for Freedom in Europe’s Last Democracy” project, Students For Liberty Belarus has worked to focus international attention on the abuse of human rights at the hands of Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Piotr Markielau, Students For Liberty Belarus’s leader and their representative at Europe Liberty Forum, has been harassed, fined, and imprisoned for his work to build a freer Belarus.

Students For Liberty Belarus competed with two other finalists for the top prize. One runner-up was the United Kingdom’s Institute of Economic Affairs for their “Britain Unlimited: The Making of a Free Trade Champion” campaign to promote free trade in the wake of Brexit. The second runner-up was Spain’s Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad for their “Private Healthcare Saves Lives” project to work to unleash the capabilities of private healthcare to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both runners-up received $1,500 each.

Europe Think Tank Shark Tank

At the close of the 2021 Europe Liberty Forum, Atlas Network’s Dr. Lyall Swim announced Aneta Vaine of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute as the winner of the 2021 Europe Think Tank Shark Tank competition. Vaine pitched her organization’s “Better Laws for Better Lives” project, which will improve the quality of the lawmaking process in Lithuania. The campaign will encourage policymakers to require impact studies for every piece of legislation proposed.

Vaine competed against a pitch from Daniel Herring of the Legatum Institute for his “UK Prosperity Index Engagement Strategy.” His project will promote the Legatum Institute’s UK Prosperity Index as a tool for stakeholders around the United Kingdom to identify specific problems and policy solutions at the local level.

Aneta Vaine, winner of the 2021 Europe Think Tank Shark Tank competition.

Closing Remarks

For the closing session, Dr. Swim was joined onstage by Martin Kothé from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Bulgaria, Saša Mirković from the Center for Anti-Authoritarian Studies in Serbia, Marin Lessenki from Open Society Institute in Bulgaria, and Irina Nedeva from the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria to discuss “Media in Difficult Times.” Their consensus was that media and journalism around Europe face challenges from both the public and governments. The Open Society Institute has developed a Media Literacy Index to measure the public’s understanding of the media they consume and their resilience to “fake news.” Marin Lessenki presented and explained the index.

The panelists agreed that better education and more trust in the media was essential. The media has to earn that trust, Nedeva said, and simply being a tool for politicians is not a good way to do so.

Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner 2021 will be held in Miami, December 13–14. Learn more here.