Democracy’s Crisis and Renewal, and the Future of the EU


1.    Introduction

A decade of crises has left the EU bereft of an idea, fragmented internally and challenged externally. Past platitudes assumed that shocks would push Europe to bounce back and find a new purpose. This time, an opposite pattern has become the norm: every crisis has disabled the EU from solving the next one, which inevitably soon arrived. 

Only an accurate diagnosis can help identify solutions. Part of the problem is understanding the reasons behind the diverse crises that have hit Europe. Politics has blamed the toxicity of populism, poisoning public opinion and paralyzing governments and institutions from moving forward on solutions. Populism is just a symptom of deeper crises; by blaming it the political leadership closes its eyes to its own responsibilities and to understanding the deeper trends in society. One interpretation about Europe’s decline focuses on the impact of globalization and it consequent rise in social and economic inequality. Through this lens the economic impact of the financial crisis and the ensuing choice of austerity politics are seen as the key events undermining EU politics. Others emphasis the rise of identity politics and the cultural backlash against globalization. Through this analysis the political breakdown in the EU which followed the spike in refugee arrivals in 2015-2016 as the main cause of the backlash against the established elite governing Europe.

These interpretations inform political and policy responses, with proposals circulating on ending austerity or blocking immigration, seen as root causes of citizen dissatisfaction. But they fail to capture the heart of the dilemma: citizens do not feel their institutions and leaders are in a position to provide answers, whatever the policy proposal may be. The point is that the problem is not just about the impact of the financial crisis on inequality, but on the legitimacy of the decisions made to address such impact.  Similarly, the questions posed by the response to the refugee crisis were as much about the nature of the response as about its legitimacy.

Europe is in quick-sand because it is suffering a democratic recession which is taking place at the national, local, and by consequence at the EU levels. This is the result of global trends as much as political choices made over the past decades by a complacent leadership dependent on the permissive consensus post-Cold War societies granted them. 

The debate on the future of Europe ignores this strand of analysis, following instead past approaches of identifying new projects to pursue or groups of countries willing to integrate further. But if the democratic recession is at the heart of Europe’s troubles, improving the quality of democratic life of Europeans is part of the solution. Political reform need not focus on treaty changes, policy creation, or reforming institutional powers. New ways of conducting politics and policy can also create innovation.

The space for the practice of democracy remains the state, thus EU member states have the prime responsibility to improve democratic life in their countries. But there also are opportunities provided by the trends of globalization and Europeanisation. The diffusion of power simultaneously to the transnational and subnational dimensions calls for a rejuvenation of processes to include societies, through emerging networks and citizen mobilization. Transnational and international issues, movements, and networks call for a different way of creating policy, and the EU is in a privileged position to bring together these dynamics and reinvent policy. 

2.    Europe’s democratic recession

Democracy has been performing badly in the Western world. According to Ronald Ingelhart, while the overall historical picture is one in which democracy advances with modernisation, in the 2010s, the world is experiencing the ‘most severe democratic setback’ since fascism.[1] There are structural trends reshaping and eroding democracy, such as globalization and Europeanisation. The onset of a technological revolution will accelerate these processes with many unforeseen consequences. But democracy is also backsliding by design, with the hollowing out of some of its key features.  

The ideology of neoliberalism entails a deliberate disempowerment of states’ governments in the management of globalization, with the slogan (used by Margaret Thatcher) of ‘there is no alternative’ as a justification for deregulation. One consequence of this has been the reduction of the welfare state and budget pressure on the ability of states to provide basic services, which at times of sluggish growth or economic contraction has augmented inequality in the whole OECD region. Danny Roderik, in discussing his trilemma about the impossibility of having simultaneously nationalism, globalisation, and democracy highlighted that ‘hyperglobalisation does require shrinking domestic politics and insulating technocrats from the demands of popular groups’.[2]

In addition, all analysis on the state of democracy have highlighted its decline, significantly in states which set influential regional trends through bad governance, corruption, abuse of democratic institutions.[3] Parts of Europe have seen the consolidation of majoritarian democracy, with some countries turning towards authoritarianism. In parallel, the space for opposition is shrinking, with clamp downs on civil society and media freedom, through denigration of civil society or delegitimization of some of its activities (for instance in supporting refugees), concentration of media power, surveillance policies in the name of the fight against terrorism. 

In Europe, where decision-making is shared across a multi-level system of government, this democratic recession takes shape in two distinct ways.  Vertically, in the relationship between supranational, national and local levels of decision-making, where the displacement of decision-making has created a void occupied by a variety of populist parties and movements. Horizontally, where the issues to be addressed and public goods to be managed cut across national borders, the dislocation of policy spaces has broken down the boundaries domestic and international policies.

Europeanisation has entailed transfers of decision-making powers away from the national level, where democratic life mostly still takes place. Even if this has been accompanied by a expanding the powers of the European Parliament, representative, accountable and democratic decision-making at the supranational level is still wanting. So far, EU governments have decided on the basis of a ‘permissive consensus’ which enabled a minimum deliberation with citizens. With the politicization of the issues decided at the EU level, especially since the start of the crises, this permissive consensus broke down. However benign EU integration with respect to representation and accountability, Europeanisation does question the relationship between member states, where the most substantive expression of representative democracy takes place, and the EU.

The most serious erosion of democracy has taken place at the national level, not uniformly across the European 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 scrutinising EU legislation. Rarely are public debates held on pan-European issues. Political parties bare the brunt of responsibility for emptying the space for democratic debate. Political parties are no longer playing their vital role as vehicles for debate and representation between society and their institutions; they are ’failing because the zone of engagement […] is being evacuated’.[4] At the local level, Europeanisation has been corresponded with efforts at strengthening federal and local powers through decentralization and subsidiarity. These have been unevenly successful. While 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, especially by austerity and budget cuts from national to the local level, disempowering subnational administrations from deliverity services. 

So the democratic recession is taking place not merely at the EU level (traditionally addressed through the democratic deficit question), but in the vertical and hierarchical relationship between the EU, national and local levels. 

The spaces for decision-making have also been transformed by globalisation and Europeanisation: the impact of policy choices is not coterminous with legitimate decision-making as public goods less and less are contained by national borders. Decision-making is dislocated across several interconnected spaces. Most policies now have a transnational dimension which also goes beyond the EU itself – migration, climate change are some of the obvious examples. For instance, housing policy, education, welfare are policies which are often managed at the local levels, but migration control, which has an impact on housing needs, is increasingly considered a foreign policy to be delegated to third states, in light of the inability of the EU and its member states to reform its immigration and integration policies.

Managing the complexity of contemporary policy requires joined-up decision making on transnational issues of pan-European concern. But these arguments and attempts are undermined by the inability of the political organisations to adapt the democratic discussion to such multi-level governance, of which Europe and the EU is the most advanced example world-wide. Who decides? Who is legitimated to decide? Who is accountable? Increasingly, we are seeing policy involving a multitude of actors working at different levels, which include EU, national, subnational institutions, but also the private sector, NGOs, citizens associations. Decision-shaping and implementation is becoming more complex, but the decision making has not changed much to account for such complexity.

3.    Europe’s futures

Back in 2014 the incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker branded his upcoming challenge as ‘the Commission of the last chance’. Since then there have been several initiatives to save the EU, some focusing on policy proposals – the what -, others focusing on finding unity among some member states – the who. 

Progress on policy assumes that if the EU can deliver it will breach the gap with its citizens. From Bratislava in 2016 to Sibiu in 2019, EU leaders have met to propose areas in which ‘more Europe’ could deliver – banking union, migration policy, security and defence, social Europe. Few will disagree that these areas do indeed require a major shake-up and would be instrumental to overcome Europe’s weaknesses (economic divergence, its security vacuum, and disparate immigration policies). Yet all those policy areas are stalled, with no signs of resuscitation in the short term, ostensibly because the member states are fragmented on each of these matters. So the problem is both who could push forward an agenda and what agenda to push forward. 

The Commission has also explored the possibility of differentiation whereby some member states move forward ahead of others.[5] French President Emmanuel Macron is the only leader who has been explicitly arguing that ‘differentiations, the vanguard, the heart of Europe’ should be embraced, not feared as leading towards further fragmentation. Macron recognises that so far the project of European integration has been carried forward shielded by the security umbrella provided by the US and shielded from the interference of democratic politics. Today neither conditions exist, but the vanguard will still drive integration: ‘at every key moment in its history, Europe will move forward first of all through the determination of a few. This ambition is never a source of exclusion, it is the seed of European unity and sovereignty’.[6]

As the EU crises have advanced, other visions for Europe’s future have also began to emerge. Some of those who until recently wanted to leave the EU are now cooperating transnationally to see how, together, they can undermine the EU without destroying it.  After all, the EU has provided a great platform not only to amplify Eurosceptic noise through access to European Parliament funding, but also to build transnational networks. In the EU there are ‘Remain Eurosceptics’[7] who love the single market and structural funds, but do not want any other interference from Brussels especially on domestic affairs. There also are nationalists with ambitions to want to roll back powers from Brussels. Many of the populists in the European Parliament and in the European Council would like to see more national agricultural, migration, security policies; a plurality of them does not like Brussels managing trade; and most would probably seek different international alliances. 

With the rise in nationalist forces, the debate about the future of Europe has become more politicised, with risks of a polarization between technocracy and nationalism. At the same time, should the EU not be able to manage its own internal standards of democracy, there are strong risks both of fracturing the EU internally, with the possibility of an enforced differentiation along lines of democratic standards, and of consequences externally, most notably in the process of transformation of the Western Balkans, supported by their accession prospects. In other words, the debate about the future of Europe and its legitimacy vis-à-vis its citizens, is interconnected with the democratic future of Europe.

4.    Gamechangers: rethinking democracy 

The Eurozone crises and the political crisis following the refugee influx illustrated quite clearly that the debate was not just about policy solutions, but about who can legitimately decide how to solve the problem. The legitimacy of the EU institutions, when handling the crises, was taken into question by national politics –by Greece in 2015, now by the current Italian government over Eurozone management.  In the Visegrad four, who refused the scheme to relocate asylum seekers and refugees, the principle of such imposition from the EU was challenged – the numbers of refugees were irrelevant.

Looking forward, the biggest challenge seems to be precisely the relationship between EU and national legitimacy. The EU is needed for policy solutions which member states cannot address alone because of the diffusion of power across boundaries; yet the member states continue to be where legitimacy takes shape and is supposed to be reiterated through institutions and society. 

The democratic recession has created voids that have been easily occupied by populist politics. With success came ambition, and far right populists have began to systematically close that space by undermining democratic procedures and institutions. Yet less vocal movements have also become active: community initiatives, citizen mobilization, networks of non-state actors have begun to play a larger role in shaping responses to local needs but also to lobby for political change. Introducing new actors in the democratic game is controversial: who do they represent? What power and influence can they exert? Under what conditions can they bring about change?

Experience does provide examples, the most successful was the Paris Agreement reached in 2015 on climate change, one of the greatest achievements of this century. The Paris Agreement was brought about by a varied global coalition of NGOs, citizens’ networks, local governments, national governments, international organisations, interest groups, all geared towards the single goal of getting as many stakeholders as possible to commit to reducing carbon emissions. A decade earlier the EU had tried to provide leadership to this goal and failed; the key difference was in the diversified alliance bringing together local and international commitments across the globe.

In Eastern Europe, where Russian-driven authoritarian intervention continues to threaten the integrity of states and societies, civil society resilience has prevented take over of the entire region, also with help from Western donors. By providing services for citizens in conflict zones and shaping the public debate, Ukrainian civil society more than any other power has shielded the independence of its country from incremental aggression and, through two revolutions in a decade, fought back on the corruption of its own political leadership. 

In Europe, civic engagement and the European network of NGOs played a critical role in preventing a breakdown of European welcoming services following the influx of refugees in 2015-2016. They continue to shape in-the-field policies, despite a political backlash against them, and through their work on reception have emboldened cities and towns to develop their own strategies to deal with arrivals and settlements of refugees and migrants. Europe’s economy is increasingly driven by growing urban areas, governed by progressive and open policies which helped regenerate local economies. 

The alliance between civil society and international institutions is not new. The Helsinki Process bringing together dissidents in the Soviet Union and its satellites with Western European human rights activists formed the basis for a conflict free transition out of the Cold War and for the creation of pan-European regional arrangements through which states made security commitments for peace on the European continent. Vaclav Havel, in his essay on the Power of the Powerless, commented on how Charter 77 would have been ‘unimaginable without that powerful sense of solidarity among widely differing groups’.

There are, of course, many examples in which civil society was not able to shape its future. This raises the question of which factors and conditions can make it a game-changer. Anne-Marie Slaughter put networks at the centre of ‘new’ power in the 21st century, identifying features that make them successful and influential. Successful networks are transnational and diversified, they are capable of building alliances, working with institutions and governments, they have ideational power to change views, and they can expand through their power of attraction. Networks also usher in a different organization of power and leadership, which is open, participatory, and peer driven. Rather than hierarchical, leadership is about relationships and persuasion.[8]

5.    Conclusion: Europe’s futures as democracy’s futures

Europe’s democratic recession is intertwined with the crisis in and of the EU. States continue to be the space in which democracy was built, thrived, and now challenged. Transnational or multilevel units or forms of organization are unlikely to be able to  substitute the democratization that took place within European states over the past centuries. This is one of the reasons for which the federalist project of European integration has not succeeded in converting the majority of Europeans. But intergovernmentalism too has failed. It was strengthened by the Lisbon Treaty and the crisis which put much crisis management into the hands of the heads of state and government meeting in the European Council, and the backlash against the leadership and the political parties they represent has been unprecedented.

Transnational processes can bring in renewal which can revitalize national democracies. The EU is well placed to promote more participative, inclusive, and transnational forms of engagement. It has already sponsored civil society platforms and citizen consultations, though it needs to give more meaning to these new processes. 

One way to design citizen engagement is to mobilise networks based on policy challenges, similarly to the mobilization that proceeded the Paris Agreement, injecting some bottom-up participative democracy.

The EU is ideally placed to manage complex policy challenges and to seek compromises between technocratic and political instances. The multi-level institutions and structures that comprise the EU can provide the spaces in which participative politics take place, bringing together transnational networks, civil society organisations, and community initiatives with local, regional, national and EU government. Focusing on specific issues close to citizens, such as the management of public goods, rather than generic questions about democracy, can endow new life and meaning to political participation, providing a new basis both for a renewal of European democracy and of the European project.

[1] Ronald Ingelhart (2018), ‘The Age of Insecurity. Can Democracy Save Itself?’, Foreign Affairs, Volume 97, Issue 3, pp. 20-28, May/June.
[2] Danny Roderik (2011), The Globalization Paradox. Why Markets, States, and Democracy can’t Coexist, Oxford: OUP, pp. 189-190.
[3] Larry Diamond (2015), ‘Facing up to the Democratic Recession’, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 141-155
[4] Peter Mair (2013), Ruling the Void. The Hollowing of Western Democracy, London: Verso, p. 16.
[5] European Commission (201), White Paper on the Future of Europe, COM (2017)2025, Brussels: 1 March.
[6] Emmanuel Macron (2017), Initiative for Europe, Speech held at the Sorbonne, Paris: 26 September, retrievable in English at
[7] Simon Kuper, (2019), ‘The EU’s enemy within: Eurosceptic Remainers’, The Financial Times Magazine, 21 March.
[8] Anne-Marie Slaughter (2017), The Chessboard and the Web. Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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).