In recent decades, as disillusionment with the post-Cold War settlement has grown, so has the dissatisfaction with the state for European governance. Today, for many, the EU has become a symbol of the democratic malaise. As a result, three decades after the end of communism, the progress of European democracy is faltering. In this blog, Luke Cooper (LSE) introduces a new series of contributions entitled “The future of European democracy: Fixing a troubled continent”, which mark a beginning of a new dialogue on the state, and future, of European democracy. The series is part of an on-going collaboration between the Visions of Europe project at the London School of Economics and the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. 

Thirty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain is a particularly opportune moment to launch a new discussion on the future of European democracy. Since 1989 European societies have had to live with the consequences of what we might call the ‘too severe’ defeat that socialism suffered in the 1980s and 1990s. In one of history’s many cruelties, social democrats across the globe lost out heavily from the defeats of the communist world. Although from the earliest days of the Soviet experiment they criticised the creation of a state based on the political monopoly of one party, they were now on the defensive against globalising Anglo-American neoliberalism.

The result was a quite paradoxical moment for democracy. As a system of representative governance, it was more widespread than ever before. Yet, as conflicts over big ideological ideas were pushed to one side by the unfettered rise of neoliberalism, the representative function of the democratic system was diminished. Two key dangers presented themselves. Firstly, the existence of communism had acted as a moderating force on capitalism. Once it was no longer a threat to the status quo there was less incentive for capital to compromise with labour. Secondly, if the purposefulness of democracy became less clear to voters, then participation was likely to decline. Ultimately, radical criticisms of liberal democracy might re-emerge. If citizens grew disillusioned they may end up rejecting democratic processes.

Baltic Way

These dangers have been, at least partially, realised in developments since 1989. On the one hand, new authoritarianism and nationalism has openly questioned political liberalism (the package of rights for individuals and minorities). While they do not admit to challenging democracy as such, they threaten the constitutional rights on which it depends. On the other hand, unleashing market forces without restraint has undermined a politics focused on the achievement of substantive outcomes: reducing poverty, delivering universal healthcare, etc. Citizens have less freedom over their lives as markets forces have
become more preponderant over every aspect of them.

Europe only ‘got serious’ about political integration in the ashes of the Soviet empire. But as disillusionment has grown with the post-Cold War settlement, so too has dissatisfaction with the state for European governance. Sometimes unfairly, other times perhaps more justly, the EU has become a symbol of the democratic malaise. As a result, three decades after the end of communism, the progress of European democracy is faltering. This poses, naturally, significant risks to us all. Richard Crossman, the Labour politician that served in Harold Wilson’s government, edited a collection of autobiographical critiques of communism in the 1950s, The God That Failed. In his introduction he warned there was little value in seeing it simply as an evil. Its appeal had to be contextualised and understood. ‘That communism as a way of life, should, even for a few years’, he wrote, capture the imagination of so many, ‘reveals a dreadful deficiency in European democracy’.

And so today reflection on democracy is called for more than ever. The future of our united Europe looks uncertain. The nature of its democracy has become contested. So this series of interventions is the beginning of a new dialogue on the state, and future, of European democracy. It is part of an on-going collaboration between the Visions of Europe project at the London School of Economics and the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. Each forthcoming contribution should be read as an intervention calling for further work. In the coming weeks, the LSE Brexit blog will publish pieces by Benjamin Abrams, Rosa Balfour, Luke Cooper, Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz, Mary Kaldor, Niccolò Milanese, Kalypso Nicolaïdis, and Shalini Randeria written in the spirit of action, as well as reflection. Their research takes place at the interface between academia, civil society and the political sphere. And their scholarly efforts will seek to offer a new political road-map for a troubled continent.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by Uldis Pinka, CC-BY-SA.

Luke Cooper (@lukecooper100) is a Visiting Fellow on the Europe’s Futures programme (2018–2019) at the Institute of Human Sciences (Vienna) and an Associate Researcher at the LSE Conflict and Civil Society research unit. He is the co-host of the Another Europe podcast and is currently writing a book putting the crisis of the European Union in historical perspective.

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