Democracy in the EU Amid a Poli-Crisis: Perceptions Across Europe
A new two-year project, “Towards Democratic and Inclusive Europe: EP Elections and Active Citizens Participation and Contribution” (EUact2), was launched in Bratislava, Slovakia. In collaboration with European Movement Ireland, ELIAMEP, and IDM, GLOBSEC will seek to create a sustained level of citizen activism to have their voices better represented in local, national, and European policymaking.
This event looked at democracy in Europe today, given the complicated context of the Russian war in Ukraine. The speakers, including Noelle O Connell, Executive Director, European Movement (EM) Ireland; Spyros Blavoukos, Head, Arian Condellis European Programme; ELIAMEP; and Sebastian Schäffer, Managing Director, Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM); as well as the participants engaged in a lively discussion based on a few initial questions:
- What is the state of democracy across Europe today? Where are the citizens?
- How can crises be used as a democracy-strengthening impetus?
- What are some good practices across the EU? What have we learnt from the Conference of the Future of Europe and other participatory formats?
- Defending democracy versus democracy on the offence: Is there a difference?
During the discussion, speakers addressed how they asses the state of democracy, whether or not the values upon which the EU has been built are still strong, and are the main challenges to democracy in Europe.
There was a general appeal for going back to basics and ensuring that concepts like democracy and crisis are well defined so that no variations of perceptions hinder processes. When talking about the declining state of democracy, the speakers raised critical questions: What kind of democracy is in crisis? What do we have now, and for what are we aiming?
While the war in Ukraine seemed to have shown us what is right and wrong early on, today, populists are becoming louder and confident enough to go further in their actions. A steady, although at times overwhelming, number of citizens continue to primarily vote for populist parties and leaders. Indeed, they feel as though they have “been left behind” and that they “do not matter” to national politicians, let alone European ones. Ongoing issues of citizens who claim their voices are not being heard and that the EU is unable to translate their problems into efficient policies have been a point for concern raised by the speakers. Recognising that perceptions could have a stronger effect on citizens than facts is essential.
Member state governments continue to “nationalise success and Europeanise failure.” This well-known strategy feeds the myth that “Brussels is too far”, therefore further alienating citizens from European affairs. Additionally, the string of crises, even poli-crises, have led to general discontent among Europeans. But is there a risk that democracy in Europe will collapse? On the same day as this event, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova spoke at the European Parliament, warning that “we might be the last generation to experience democracy.” Yet, the speakers and participants reframed the conversation towards a democracy dealing with multiple challenges, excluding its potential collapse.
Some positive messages related to the unseen solidarity among citizens and governments at the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as they provided political, economic, and military support. Further, with all of its flaws, the experience of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) has been a successful experiment on a large scale, leading to new learning among citizens, governments and the EU institutions—gaining more knowledge about the EU, exposure to different participatory and deliberative formats, and engagement beyond one’s conform zone. Therefore, while we prepare for a hard winter, literally and figuratively, speakers and participants saw democracy as withstanding and as the only acceptable option for Europe.
- Engagement and discussion with European citizens, particularly those who feel left behind, should be a priority, focused on making populist rhetoric less appealing.
- In general, the EU should be agile and more innovative, concentrating on engaging citizens with purpose.
- There should be a subsequent policy output-oriented Conference on the Future of Europe.
- Platforms for interactions between national governments, citizens and the EU should become a permanent feature - the CoFoE exposed the gap in interaction.
- Participation in both national and European elections, as well as an emphasis on European citizenship, should be improved.