Europe’s Future Depends on Reinventing its Democracies

Europe's Futures

The dust has finally settled from European Parliament elections held in May. Fears of a nationalist-populist surge did not materialize. Jockeying for the bloc’s top jobs is almost complete. While the European Commission’s new leaders still need to pass auditions next month, the EU has a team in place to carry it through the next five years.

Those years will likely be as tumultuous and difficult as the last half decade.

Even if the EU and its member states have the leadership skills to weather looming storms — from a US-China trade war to rising tensions in the Middle East — the reasons for Europe’s recent travails should not be forgotten.

Only through self-reflection can the EU rejuvenate its standing in Europe and the rest of the world.

Rethinking Europe’s future also means looking at its democratic life. A passion for working together can only come through political participation and a shared sense of purpose.

All have been eroded, together with a weakening of democratic societies and institutions. Look no further than Hungary, Poland, Italy and Britain for living examples of democracies undermined by the challenges of our time.

To be sure, democracy has been performing badly in the Western world. After decades of improvements, the 2010s delivered the "most severe democratic setback" since the rise of fascism before World War II, in the words of US political scientist Ronald Inglehart.

The reasons are many and complex.

The ideology of neoliberalism deprived governments of their ability to manage globalization, with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s slogan "there is no alternative" serving as a justification for deregulation.

One consequence has been the reduction of the welfare state and pressure on the ability of governments to provide basic services, which at times of sluggish growth or economic contraction has exacerbated inequality across the OECD club of wealthy nations.

Noting that nationalism, globalization and democracy cannot possibly all exist at the same time, economist Dani Rodrik wrote in The Globalization Paradox that "hyper-globalization does require shrinking domestic politics and insulating technocrats from the demands of popular groups."

The state of democracy is also in decline due to bad governance, corruption and the abuse of democratic institutions.

Parts of Europe have seen the consolidation of majoritarian democracy, with some countries turning towards authoritarianism. The space for opposition is shrinking amid clampdowns on media freedoms and the denigration of civil society.

The work of non-governmental organizations — for example, in supporting refugees — has been hindered through legal and financial means as well as by new surveillance policies introduced in the name of fighting terrorism.

Meanwhile, the increasingly concentrated power of populist and right-wing media — including outlets owned by politicians and their oligarch friends — has helped delegitimize civil society.

These trends are widespread, even if they are not equally manifest across countries.

A shift in decision-making

Europe is in the peculiar situation of having some of the best-performing democracies while seeing significant democratic backsliding.

The continent also has countries that are still transitioning towards democracy. For that reason, the example set in one country can have consequences for its neighbours.

Europeanization has involved a transfer of decision-making powers away from the national level where democratic life mostly still takes place.

Though accompanied by an expansion of powers of the European Parliament, representative, accountable and democratic decision-making at the supranational level is still wanting.

Shared decision-making has allowed the EU to be innovative and to punch above the weight of its individual members. It has helped member states manage globalization together. But it comes at a cost, which is now evident.

EU governments have long made decisions on the basis of "permissive consensus," which allowed for little deliberation with the public.

But the past 10 years have seen one crisis after another along with a politicization of issues — trade, Eurozone management, migration, security — that were previously dealt with by representatives of national governments working with their partners.

With the breakdown of permissive consensus, the space to contest the validity of the EU and its elites opened up.

In came the anti-EU populists and authoritarian voices. In came Brexit. And in came questions about the foundations of our democracies and our being together.

For all the EU’s faults, the most serious erosion of democracy has taken place at the national level, although not uniformly across the continent (which remains home to some of the most advanced democracies in the world).

National institutions have been hollowed out. In many countries, national parliaments are weak in scrutinizing EU legislation. Rarely are public debates held on pan-European issues.

At the local level, Europeanization has corresponded to efforts to strengthen federal and local powers through decentralization and subsidiarity. But these have been unevenly successful.

While all this has led to new dynamics, especially when urban areas have been empowered to manage their affairs, the transfer of powers to local authorities has been limited by austerity and budget cuts. This has made it harder for subnational administrations to deliver vital services such as welfare, education, health and housing.

The space for decision-making has also been transformed and dislocated as the impacts of policy decisions are felt across national borders.

Most policies now have a transnational dimension that goes beyond the EU itself. Migration, climate change and the fight against terrorism are obvious examples.

Housing, education and welfare are policies that are often managed at the local level, but migration control, which has an impact on housing needs, is increasingly considered foreign policy to be delegated to third states, thanks to the inability of the EU and its member states to reform immigration and integration policies.

Who is accountable?

Managing the complexity of contemporary policy requires joined-up decision-making on transnational issues of pan-European concern.

But these attempts are undermined by the inability of political organizations to adapt the democratic discussion to such multi-level governance, of which the EU is the most advanced example worldwide.

Who decides? Who has the legitimacy to decide? Who is accountable?

These are questions that need to be addressed by the incoming EU leadership. There is no need to reinvent the wheel since there are plenty of initiatives and inspiring experiments taking place across the continent, such as in cities or citizens’ consultations.

Increasingly, successful policies are made by a multitude of actors working at different levels: the EU, national and subnational institutions, the private sector, NGOs and citizens’ associations.

The Paris Agreement on climate change was the most successful global alliance of local, bottom-up and mobilized societies and national, intergovernmental and multilevel institutions.

Listening to all points of view and finding solutions through dialogue and confrontation has always been the way of doing politics. It used to be focused on the government, the factory and the workers. Now that society is more fragmented, the process needs to bring in far more voices.

The EU is well placed to do this, precisely because it is well suited to dealing with complexity. But it needs to translate some of its good intentions, such as holding citizens’ consultations, into meaningful action.

Rather than gathering opinions on all sorts of issues, it needs to turn these into pan-European occasions for debate on concrete policy questions, bringing in appropriate stakeholders and throwing into the mix political justifications for policy choices.

There are myriad fields in which this can be done, starting with fighting climate change — a topic that already ignites passions and mobilizes networks.

These methods, when meaningfully steered and with the involvement of the EU’s multilevel governance, can find inclusive solutions to concrete policy challenges while giving democratic politics a new lease of life.

It may sound paradoxical to strengthen bottom-up politics when the wind is blowing in the opposite direction, towards making the EU stronger at the top so it can flex its muscles with other world leaders.

But the EU’s strength lies in inclusive, democratic and prosperous life. This should not be forgotten.


The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).