Editorial: the state of democracy in Europe

, by Madelaine Pitt

Editorial: the state of democracy in Europe
This graph displays the results of The Economist’s Democracy Index study from 2018. Photo: BlankMap-World6

Demos (the people) and kratos (power) have become quite the double act. An up-and-coming duo in around 500 BC in Greece, the compound of the two is delivering a somewhat more polished performance in most modern societies. Europe is proud to call itself the home crowd. Yet democracy is suffering on the continent of its cradle.

2,500 years on from early democratic life in Athens, in which certain segments of the middle-class population were permitted to enter debates with the ruling aristocracy, we tend to think of Europe as a safe haven for democratic life, a certainty in a changing and increasingly unpredictable world. This week at The New Federalist, throughout our feature on #DemocracyUnderPressure, we have challenged this assumption. While still acknowledging that European societies show on average higher levels of democracy than elsewhere, we have shown that there are a growing number of challenges to democracy on our continent – and that they come in varied and evolving forms.

In this editorial, I join the dots of our analysis, highlighting the most important conclusions: challenges to democracy are not limited to Central and Eastern European countries which regularly make the headlines; and we desperately need to update our view of what democracy is to suit the realities of the 21st century.

Defining and measuring democracy

Democracy is a spectrum, not a cross or a tick; fluid rather than fixed, meriting vigilance rather than complacency. This being the case, how should we operationalise and measure democracy? The Economist has had a go, creating a Democracy Index in which it assigns values to assess to what extent a country meets certain criteria: electoral processes and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties. To sum up: are elections fair, can people vote freely for parties which satisfy their wishes, and can people enjoy democratic rights free from oppression?

The rankings highlight a wide variety in standards of democracy within Europe. Norway, Iceland and Sweden hold the podium as the three most democratic countries in the world. The biggest economic engines of Europe, the UK, France and Germany, are in the lower half of the 22 countries that are classed as “full democracies”, as are Spain and Portugal. In the next category, “flawed democracies”, come, for example, Italy, Malta, Estonia and Greece. These are followed by the stragglers of the EU: Hungary, Poland, Croatia and Romania (for comparison, they trail behind Colombia, Brazil and Tunisia). In the category below, “hybrid democracy”, come Moldova, the Ukraine and North Macedonia. Meanwhile, Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, stumbles in at 150, just three places ahead of China, in the lowest category of all, “authoritarian regime”.

These rankings offer us a guideline and a more nuanced approach to understanding democracy than simply “do the people choose who is in power?”, which leads to a more binary perspective on what active democratic participation truly entails. However, these broad rankings are averages which also hide important differences between European countries. In no cases is this more evident than in the freedom of the press.

Freedom of the press

While government acquisition of media outlets may be a clear-cut crackdown on the freedom of the press, there are murkier ways of treading on independent sources to reduce their ability to voice their criticism. Our interview with András Dési, a former newspaper editor in Hungary, highlighted that, where media outlets are dependent on state advertising and where private companies are afraid to buy up advertising space in independent newspapers and on commercial airwaves, the media cannot be considered “free”.

A mediascape incapable of holding the government to account is by no means limited to new member states; the British press has failed Britain. Its rating of 33rd in the World Press Index hardly reflects the level of concentrated ownership, heavy overrepresentation of Eurosceptic views, presence of fake news and the contempt in which politicians hold the press. When the head of state alternately tries to expel journalists from press briefings and hides in fridges to avoid scrutiny, it is little wonder that the media was not up to the challenge of exposing Brexit for what it is; the biggest fraud achieved in a supposedly democratic nation since the Second World War.

It is impossible to talk about freedom of the press in Europe without mentioning the risk of imprisonment and physical attacks that journalists in Europe face today. Especially shocking are the killings which have taken place in Northern Ireland, Turkey and Slovakia in recent years; and it is crucial to recognise that fear of physical consequences for going about their work affects many, many more journalists, while even more suffer online abuse for their work.

The most famous case of all is undoubtedly that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, brutally murdered following her revelations about government corruption in Malta. Our interview with her son Matthew revealed the extent to which press freedom is tied up with accountability, checks and balances.

Checks and balances

Poland is the EU member state in which the executive, in the form of the Law and Justice Party, has sought to acquire the most control over the judiciary. This makes the court system more likely to bow to the government’s wishes, resulting in biased judgements. As shown in our article on the Polish constitutional crisis, it is not so much the individual changes to legislation, such as reshuffling judges and implementing mechanisms to select executive-friendly candidates, which cause concern, but the overall picture painted their combined effect.

Academic freedom

As those who are best equipped to fight mistruths with evidence, academics have long been persecuted in undemocratic societies. Under Nazi occupation in Poland, professors at the University of Krakow gave lectures, despite risk of persecution and deportation, in secret locations in the city. The forced relocation of Central European University is a no less concrete rebellion against a government which has sought to acquire too much control over research and teaching, ultimately with the aim of influencing free thought and boosting government support.

Our interview with Balázs Trencsényi, a professor at the institution, revealed to what extent the partial loss of the university has caused a “brain drain” for Hungary – as well as being a loss to intellectual freedom symbolically.

Democracy in the digital era

Our take on the problem of fake news demonstrated that we urgently need a rethink and update of what democracy means in 2020. Relatively stable democracies can be thoroughly undermined by online flows of misinformation from questionable sources – again, take the example of the UK, where false stories buffeted existing Euroscepticism in the population.

Equally, in our interview with Eszter Nagy of the civil society group Union of European Federalists in Hungary, we learnt how misinformation can be actively promoted by governments in the mainstream media to promote their own interests.

Facebook and other social media have revolutionised the way we consume news, and trying to stem the tide of fake news shared over such platforms by employing people to take it down, as Facebook is trying to do, is akin to fighting floods with a mop. Finland is trying another tack; educating children in media literacy so that they recognise fake news when they see it. Meanwhile, fake news is free and clutters many a newsfeed; quality journalism is often behind paywalls.

The digital era has also restructured political advertising, which candidates diverting large sums of money to platforms like Facebook to garner support. Our piece on the influence on elections highlights the extent to which we have lost the balance that was more measurable in times of TV and billboards.

Rise of populism

Right-wing populist parties such as the AfD in Germany or the Lega Nord in Italy threaten democracy as well. Our article on the case of Italy demonstrates that, by painting a false picture of “us” and “them”, showing a disregard for rule of law when it is inconvenient to them, making simplistic, quick-fix proposals, populist parties disrupt reasoned debate and, more often than not, point to scapegoats rather than solutions. Certainly, they show themselves to be increasingly capable of airing complaints which appeal to voters, who are entitled to vote for whomever they wish. Yet by targeting minorities and failing to offer realistic, suitable solutions, they put the cohesiveness of our societies in jeopardy.

Gender (in)equality and minority groups

When democratic backsliding occurs, it is crucial to acknowledge that some suffer more than others. Minority groups are not only regularly painted as the enemy as essential fodder for populist, nationalist discourse but are also most need the protection of the rule of law of a strong state which upholds civil liberties and individual freedoms. Our article linking demagogues to the use of scapegoats shows that Roma in Hungary and the LGBTQ community in Poland are sadly current examples of targeted groups used to justify authoritarian measures being taken.

Gender equality also suffers in less democratic countries. Under nationalist-minded regimes, a strong emphasis on “family values” is often present, disguising a vision in which women do not have full political or economic participation in society. Scholars of political party competition acknowledge this link, using “TAN” (Traditional-Nationalist-Authoritarian) as a category to describe the combination of preferences in those parties’ cultural agendas.

Furthermore, as long as women remain underrepresented in politics, and as long as women’s rights are not seen as human rights, issues which affect them (including gender-based discrimination, gender-based violence and the pay gap) will remain underrepresented on political agendas. Conversely, a truly democratic Europe would mean societies in which women have equal opportunities and do not have to adapt their lives to take account of the fear of violence which many, sadly, feel on a daily basis. It is no coincidence that Norway has both the highest levels of democracy and also the highest levels of gender equality in the world.

Climate crisis

The economic model hemmed in by our political systems is not adapting fast enough, if at all, to the issue of the climate emergency. When our democracies fail to cater for the most pressing issue of our time, which threatens the very survival of the human race, it becomes apparent that our democracies in their current form must undergo gigantic changes, as outlined in our article on democracy and the climate crisis.

At the EU level

The European Union suffers many contradictions. Respect for democratic values is enshrined within the treaties, yet the tools available to enforce them are either lacking or weak. The famous Article 7, dubbed a “nuclear option”, is in reality little more than a naughty step on which to place wayward member states which do not have to fear real consequences. Thanks to excessively high voting requirements, there is plenty of scope for authoritarian-minded governments to cover each other’s backs by refusing to vote to fully enact Article 7 to punish like-minded friends.

The processes and institutions of the EU itself also suffer democratic deficits – take the fact that the European Parliament cannot propose legislation, the low turnout in European compared to national elections, and the lack of transparency in some processes – even the manner in which the current President of the European Commission was selected from behind closed doors. The EU has a lot of work to do, both to help member states stick to the values they signed up to, and in setting an example of democracy and transparency itself.

See you next year, #DemocracyUnderPressure

Over the course of our feature #DemocracyUnderPressure, we have presented ample evidence that the notion that Europe is a safe haven for democracy is nothing but a tempting illusion. Significant democratic backsliding has occurred in Hungary, Poland and Romania, while Bulgaria and Croatia have not progressed as hoped since joining the EU in very recent years. Yet without effective tools with teeth, the European Institutions are helpless bystanders.

We have presented a strong case for expanding our concept of democracy to fit the 21st century. Democracy is not only challenged by the erosion of checks and balances, but by flows of information coursing through channels which are unregulated by governments and unknown in source and quality, and may even be malicious in intention. The plight of the United Kingdom shows that, within a shockingly short time-frame, misinformation can fuel populist ideas and a biased press to send what appeared to be mature and stable democracy spiralling off course – to the benefit of no one but a very tiny elite.

Furthermore, our article on the French political system shows that it would be a mistake to assume that democratic flaws belong only to younger democracies in Central and Eastern Europe.

Compared to rest of the world, Europe continues to show high levels of democracy. But with the degradation of democracy on so many levels, resting upon one’s laurels is hardly an option. Activism, political participation, education and journalism are more vital than ever. This week at The New Federalist, in support of our parent organisation Young European Federalists (JEF)’s action campaign #DemocracyUnderPressure, we have tried to contribute to these causes.

The Greek pioneers of democracy of 500 BC might be proud of how far we’ve come. But they might agree that we need to alter the balance of demos and kratos to go even further.

With huge thanks to all the TNF writers who contributed to the feature throughout the week, as well as to our guest writers and interviewees.

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