TThe last decade has been painful for the health of European democracy. The dramatic authoritarian turns in Hungary and Poland have attracted the most attention, but almost all European governments have undermined civil liberties, judicial independence and civil society.
With Covid accentuating many of the challenges posed by populism, misinformation, and the collapse of public trust, the narrative of democracy working through deep crisis is now well established. However, as threats have increased, so have efforts to defend and rethink democratic practices in Europe.
More spontaneously, there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of mass protests, even during the pandemic, many in support of democratic values. People have mobilized against corruption or around specific political issues and then adopted a broader democratic reform agenda. This has been the case in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia, the women’s strike in Poland, the Sardine movement in Italy, the Million Moments Movement in the Czech Republic and protests in Malta initially caused by the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Climatic movements like Extinction rebellion they are also beginning to marry their ecological demands with concerns about democratic reform. People invented new forms of protest under Covid: For example, Polish citizens protested against the new abortion laws and the election calendar by bringing their cars in procession, honking horns and sounding alarms on their windows, still in full compliance with restrictions on public gatherings.
New civil society initiatives aim to address polarization. An example is a project called Arguments Against Aggressionwhich seeks to equip people with more empathetic communication and debate skills than those commonly experienced on social media and which is now taking place in seven EU member states. Meanwhile, Covid has spawned hundreds of mutual aid civic initiatives, such as On the first line in France, whose website puts those in need of help directly in contact with local volunteers. Civil society organizations are also working more closely with protest movements. the Corruption kills The group in Romania, for example, developed out of anti-corruption protests and a torrent of public anger over the deaths of more than 60 people in a nightclub fire. Meanwhile, online initiatives are recovering the positive democratic potential of digital technology, finding new formats to feed the opinions of citizens in policy-making.
More and more citizen assemblies have emerged. Alongside well-known examples in Ireland, Belgium, and Estonia, and the French climate assembly, local advisory bodies have sprung up in cities in Poland, Spain, and elsewhere. Citizen initiatives related to Covid have emerged in, for example, Bristol board, Chemnitz, Murcia and Nantes.
And while the Brexit vote highlighted the shortcomings of direct democracy, local referenda increasingly give citizens a direct voice in their communities. All over Eastern Europe These have provided a modest antidote to populism at the national level by focusing on practical local issues. Infrastructure projects in Greece and the Czech Republic are other examples.
The formation of new political parties in Europe in the last decade is also unprecedented. Many of these new movements foreground an agenda of democratic renewal. Aside from the now familiar stories of En Marche in France, Italy Five Star Movement and We can in SpainNew parties based in part on the dynamics of social movements have gained ground. These include Alternative in Denmark, Agora in Belgium, Bij1 in the Netherlands, Momentum in Hungary and MSW in Romania. In Poland, a batch of new matches includes Modern, Left together (Razem) and Poland 2050. These startups are easy to criticize for their internal problems, policy inconsistencies, and even limited voting quotas. However, their appearance reflects a real interest in transferring part of the energy and ethics of citizen activism to party politics.
The EU is also slowly increasing pressure on governments that violate democratic norms. Of course you are struggling with Poland and Hungary But what is less noticeable is that EU pressure has galvanized improvements in the rule of law in Romania and malt. The continuum Conference on the future of Europe it is also giving citizens an unprecedented voice both in EU reform and in specific policy areas.
The very breadth of these initiatives is surprising. And, instead of a single model of democratic expression, we are seeing a variety of political activities, from spontaneous mass participation through organized civil society networks to small-scale deliberative forums, political party adjustments, digital democracy and participation. at the EU level. Each brings distinctive ingredients to the table of democratic renewal.
Yet none have advanced far enough to reverse democratic erosion. While a spirit of European democratic renewal has gathered strength, its momentum remains fragile. A more ambitious political reform agenda is needed and the many initiatives have yet to come together to achieve it.
In contrast to the vigorous bottom-up civic and community renewal, governments remain overly cautious. Concerns about illiberal populist forces have fueled reform efforts, but have also held them back. Many governments seem to understand that broader popular participation is necessary to undermine populists, but they also fear that giving public opinion more space and influence on some issues could simply provide a boost to illiberalism.
The narrative of the democratic crisis and the populist rise is too one-sided. Indeed, European politics is in a state of tug of war between democratic backsliding and democratic resurgence. Small-scale democracy initiatives are taking shape across Europe, and the grassroots momentum behind them is exciting. But these initiatives have yet to be consistent with a really powerful and radical reform agenda. The different forms of democratic renewal must begin to work hand in hand. Only then will they hope to decisively reject illiberal forces and power-grabbing governments.
Richard Youngs is Principal Investigator in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe, Professor of International Relations at the University of Warwick, and author of Rebuild European democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age, to be published in October
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism