How to put the demos back into European democracy


Liberal democracies confront a range of domestic and international challenges. In Europe, the most serious threats come from a blend of ideological and institutional inertia in the face of a virulent upsurge of illiberal populism, analysts suggest.

For the second year in a row, the European Parliament hosted a conference in celebration of the International Day of Democracy on 27 September, teaming up with four democracy support organizations: European Endowment for Democracy (EED), European Network of Political Foundations (ENoP), European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), and Office of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) to the EU, as well as the European External Action Service and the European Commission, the EED notes.

How to put demos back into democracy?

Civil society plays a key role in promoting political engagement, Šimon Pánek, Co-founder and Director of People in Need, told the conference (right).

“Young people engage more easily in society and politics, but many others remain indifferent, considering the limited outreach of NGOs,” he said. “However, even if only 20 per cent of youth are getting involved, one should not forget that these are allies when it comes to reaching out to others.”

According to The Paris Statement, a manifesto of conservative intellectuals, “recovering an awareness of political agency and a spirit of national loyalty would allow Europe to take on its challenges.” The statement is in part a defense of the nation-state, which also “reads, quite plainly, as a manifesto for a certain kind of social conservatism that opposes a certain kind of modernity,” one observer notes.

But the statement “strikes an ambivalent tone” on the populist movements stalking Europe, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes for The National Review, as it states:

We have our reservations. Europe needs to draw upon the deep wisdom of her traditions rather than relying on simplistic slogans and divisive emotional appeals. Still, we acknowledge that much in this new political phenomenon can represent a healthy rebellion against the tyranny of the false Europe, which labels as “anti-democratic” any threat to its monopoly on moral legitimacy.

The Paris Statement diverges from The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, issued in May, which called for renewal of democratic commitment.

“Faith in democratic institutions has been declining,” in part because young people “have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism,” said the signatories, who added that democracy is “a precondition for decent, inclusive societies.”

The different manifestos appear to reflect two directions taken by the heirs of Jacques Maritain’s Integral Humanism, a book that influenced both the founders of the European Union and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, Matthew Schmitz writes for First Things:

With a few admirable exceptions, those who are most committed to democratic values speak less than ever about those values’ Christian roots, and those who are committed to the Christian roots are more skeptical than ever of democratic values. According to the signers of the Prague Appeal, we should return to faith in a system that has “intrinsic value.” According to the signers of the Paris Statement, we must secularize politics, retreating from the quasi-religious declarations that stud the Prague Appeal.

Liberal democracies are better equipped than authoritarian states to grapple with the inevitable conflicts that arise in diverse societies, Sasha Polakow-Suransky adds:

But they also contain the seeds of their own destruction: if they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate, then the votes of frustrated and disaffected citizens will increasingly go to the anti-immigrant right, societies will become less open, nativist parties will grow more powerful, and racist rhetoric that promotes a narrow and exclusionary sense of national identity will be legitimized.

Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation

The rise of antidemocratic opinion is more closely linked to shifting social and cultural values, in particular burgeoning antisocial attitudes, than to growing public dissatisfaction with the operation of the democratic system, according to two articles in the latest issue of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. Disregard for democratic norms is part of a larger social transformation that has seen rising disengagement and alienation, particularly among younger generations and lower socioeconomic classes, Paul Howe writes in Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation.

There are viable options for rebooting European democracy, according to Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet professor of law at HEC Paris. While the EU has attempted to gather feedback with projects such as the thousands of Citizens’ Dialogues orchestrated by the EU Commission across Europe this year, this doesn’t go far enough, he writes for the World Economic Forum.

“An EU-driven, top-down debate is very distant from the demand for change that is emerging from the bottom up, and contrasts with the vivacity of many democratic innovations happening at the local level,” he contends, offering “a fresh set of five ideas to reboot EU democracy:


There is a need to empower individuals by democratizing access to decision-making processes and dialogues, political parties, technology – and also potentially to a basic income, argues Natalie Hatour, Associate Director, Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum. The peace process in Colombia is an example of how complex it can be to combine individual empowerment with visionary leadership, she writes:

President Juan Manuel Santos initiated the negotiations that culminated in the peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. He held a referendum to legitimize the accord – which raises questions. The outcome of the vote was not what he wanted, however: a narrow majority of the over 13 million Colombians said no to the accord. The fact that Santos is now inviting all parties to participate in a broad national dialogue aimed at advancing the peace process is significant, and not something that has been missed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

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