The challenges of European democracies today

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“Until effective institutions, other than elections, are firmly established in European democracies to creatively channel political disaffection, rituals of democratic participation will continue without any benefit to democracy,” says the author. .[AP}[AP}[AP}[AP}

In today’s European democracies, the existing institutional arrangements for controlling and influencing politics are more refined than ever in the history of contemporary democratic politics, but are far from perfect. Elections, referendums, open deliberations on bills and the exercise of individual and collective rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, are just some of the institutional means available through which citizens can control and influence politics. Yet citizens are often estranged from politics, while democratic deficits have appeared and widened at national and European levels.

As the currently evolving research produced by DEMOS tends to show, the more limited citizens feel in their capacities and opportunities to influence policy, the more they will tend to listen to populist political leaders and to echo the populist political discourse. The DEMOS research project asserts that political knowledge and skills are vital for improving democratic effectiveness, namely the ability of individual citizens to understand and influence politics. The same is true of the social, rather than the individual, aspects of democratic effectiveness. They are collective, if not institutionalized, channels of political participation through which citizens can acquire knowledge and skills. They refer to practical learning of democratic effectiveness, rather than exclusively formal political education in schools or through communication in the mass media.

Indeed, the range of rights and institutions through which citizens and organizations can participate in politics seems wide. However, there is evidence and a pervasive feeling that citizens, especially the weakest or poorest, are not active and not expressing themselves politically. And those who speak are not heard, let alone listened to, by political elites.

Thus, over time, the political space for the emergence and rise of populists has opened up across Europe. Certainly, over the past two years (2019-21), the electoral performance of populist parties has been mixed (e.g. electoral stability or decline of populist parties in the European Parliament elections of May 2019, the Greek national elections of July 2019 , the French regional elections June 2021 elections). Yet the challenge of rising populism has not eclipsed (e.g. Isabel Ayuso’s spectacular performance in the Madrid regional elections in May 2021).

The challenge of populism may not subside until citizens feel that, despite appearances, democratic effectiveness eludes them in practice. If in the period between elections, decision-making is not an area inaccessible to citizens, it is clear that it is not particularly accessible either. The repertoire of democratic participation institutions and rights has long offered citizens only ritualistic opportunities to participate. On the one hand, democracy has not been limited to the process of electing civil servants through elections, between which the elected official reigns unimpeded, but on the other hand it has not been enriched by participation either. effective citizens in decision-making.

A typical populist response to the lack of effective participation is to organize increasingly frequent referendums. This option has been tried in Switzerland and less frequently in Italy, but it has not been replicated in most other European democracies. And for a reason. As has been said, by voting in a referendum, citizens often answer questions other than the question asked in the referendum. In other words, with the exception of fundamental questions (declaration of national independence, abolition of the monarchy, etc.), citizens, voting for or against in a referendum, accept or reject the government in place, when they do not protest against recent measures, regardless of the referendum. After all, referendums are only about the few public policy issues that can be expressed as dilemmas and not the majority of multifaceted issues.

The problem is not just the inefficient functioning of democracy. It’s also convenient, because governments themselves have no idea what people think. For example, governments use their own unpublished polls and those published by opinion societies. These polls generate fleeting public interest primarily in regards to voting preferences (for example, which political party would win national elections if they were held next week). The media are not particularly interested in other conclusions, for example the acceptance or rejection of a new political measure. Even if the polls were more systematic, democracy would not reach a higher standard, and governments would not be wiser. Polls, as we know, are snapshots of public opinion. They rarely involve alternative responses to public policy questions.

Another typical populist option is to organize open citizens’ assemblies, which were very popular with Greek, Spanish and other populists in the midst of the eurozone crisis in the early 2010s. Such assemblies did not solve the problem. persistent effective participation in decision-making. Assemblies, on the one hand, have often taken on an anti-parliamentary and / or anti-EU character, thus undermining the objective of enriching democracy and advancing European integration. On the other hand, such assemblies were often “adopted” by opposition parties, so that impenetrable walls were erected between citizens and governments that mismanaged the economic crisis (and were naturally held responsible for the effects. negative social consequences of the crisis).

Moreover, the acceptance or rejection of a measure by a public opinion poll is not a significant “input” into the political system. It would be more important to investigate the reasons for accepting or rejecting the measure, as well as the proposals for its modification, before it is voted on. All over Europe there are institutional opportunities for such surveys, with the participation of citizens. Examples are available at supranational (EU), national and sub-national level. Within the EU, steps have long been taken in this direction, such as the creation and functioning of the Economic and Social Committee (in 1957). On the other hand, the European citizens’ initiative (ECI), enshrined in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, did not really work. The current Conference for the Future of Europe emphasizes participation through citizens’ panels. At the national level, there are similar traditions of civic participation, while at the sub-national level, many countries (e.g. UK, France, Denmark, etc.) have long offered citizens the opportunity to participate and influence the decisions of local governments. .

Yet it is not common for European citizens to identify democracy with citizens’ panels or deliberation committees. Citizen contribution is often limited to what political scientists call typical political participation (eg collecting signatures for a cause, voting) and atypical political participation (eg strikes, street protests). It is difficult for political efficiency to increase solely through these necessary and of course cherished, but somewhat worn out channels of democratic participation.

In short, typical populist arrangements, such as opinion polls and open citizens’ meetings, are not sufficient tools for democratic participation, let alone improving democratic effectiveness. They do not solve the problem that modern democracies leave many citizens indifferent because they have no way of substantially influencing decision-making between elections. Complementary or alternative mechanisms, such as citizens’ panels, discussion groups organized by political decision-makers, public deliberations, etc. have been tried, but not yet considered an integral part of democratic life.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues in waves in 2021, in some EU member states, in addition to the long-term phenomenon of political alienation, a muffled political disaffection has built up due to the long crisis economic and health (see the results of the Standard Eurobarometer 94, published in April 2021). Until effective institutions, other than elections, are firmly established in European democracies to creatively channel political disaffection, rituals of democratic participation will continue without any benefit to democracy. If, however, institutional arrangements for participation cease to be hopeless rituals, then there is a chance that citizens will embrace them and – along the way – improve their own democratic efficiency.


Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos is Professor of Political Science at the University of Athens and Senior Researcher at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). Alexia Mitsikostas is project manager at ELIAMEP.


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