All forms of democracy require renewal and adaptability; envisioning renewal requires an understanding of the complexity of the problem. Europe is undergoing a democratic recession which is at the heart of over a decade of multiple complex crises, Brexit being the latest in a string of setbacks, writes Rosa Balfour (German Marshall Fund).
By ‘democratic recession’ I mean to capture both the transformations brought in by globalisation and the deliberate attempts to empty democratic practices and systems of their salience. The recession reflects the unintended consequences of global trends which are eroding deeply, and in equal ways, European democracies and the legitimacy of the collective system of governance through integration and cooperation in the EU. These can include the impact of technology and the ubiquity of globalisation – the ‘entropy’ of democracy, to use Colin Crouch’s word.
Recession’ additionally points to the deliberate downgrading of democracy that is taking place in Europe. Globalisation is also driven by the neoliberal design of disempowering the state’s role in the governance of public goods. Under the populist rubric, the notion of majoritarian democracy as reflective of ‘the will of the people’, or even the invention of ‘illiberal democracy’, are becoming smokescreens for not merely for the downgrading of substantive democratic practices, such as the rights of minority voices, but also of basic procedural democratic standards, such as the separation of powers and the checks and balances on executive power.
In the EU several countries have been downgraded by international monitors to electoral democracies, but even the oldest democracies in the world have seen their standards slip. Corruption has significantly eroded good governance and caused attacks on investigative journalism. Austerity, the fight against terrorism, and the fears around the arrivals of migrants and refugees have provided further arguments for curtailing freedom of the press, the activities of the non-profit sectors, and civil rights. Given the depth of integration between European states, the question of democracy needs to be analysed in conjuncture with the EU system of governance. Much of the debate about citizen disengagement points the finger to the EU institutions as distant and not reflective of citizen concerns. This feeds into the debate over the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’, and prompts the alleged solutions of empowering the European Parliament to decide through its political groupings who should lead the European Commission – the Spitzenkandidaten process – pitting the European Parliament against the member states as the main cleavage in the democratic debate.
Locating the democratic deficit at the European level is, however, misplaced – thus the solutions to address it are unlikely to reach the heart of the matter. The main theatre of democracy takes place at the national level: while decision-making powers have been moved upwards towards the EU level, accountability still passes through national institutions. Together with Europeanisation, some efforts towards devolution have taken place: in EU jargon, subsidiarity is supposed to promote governance at the most appropriate level.
Where decision-making is shared across a multi-level system of government, this democratic recession takes shape in two distinct ways: vertically, in the relationship between supranational, national and local levels of decision-making; and horizontally, where the issues to be addressed and public goods to be managed cut across national borders, the dislocation of policy spaces has broken down the boundaries domestic and international policies.
Governments in the EU have been making decisions on the basis of a ‘permissive consensus’ in favour of integration amongst elites which allowed for a minimum level of deliberation with citizens. The Lisbon Treaty even strengthened the concentration of decision-making in the heads of state and government meeting in the European Council. They were the drivers behind the successive crisis management phases that dominated EU life from the economic impact of the financial crisis in 2008 and ensuing Eurozone crises in Europe’s periphery, through the security crisis with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the refugee influx. With the politicisation of the issues decided at the EU level, especially since the start of the crises, this permissive consensus broke down.
However benign EU integration is with respect to representation and accountability, the process of Europeanisation does question the relationship between member states, where the most substantive expression of representative democracy takes place, and the EU. Yet the most serious erosion of democracy has taken place at the national level, not uniformly across the European continent (which remains home to some of the most advanced democracies in the world). National institutions have been hollowed out. In many countries, national parliaments are weak in scrutinising EU legislation. And in crisis-ridden times, with weak coalitions in charge, governments have often resorted to governing by confidence vote.
Political parties hold responsibility for emptying the space for democratic debate. Voter participation has been in decline for decades, the end of ideology and the sameness of the traditional parties has emptied the centre-ground. Political parties are not playing their vital role as vehicles for debate and representation between society and their institutions. Nor are they playing a role in bringing European debates to national publics. As Peter Mair pointed out, citizens have been retreating from politics as much as parties have been evacuating their zone of engagement. The void has been easily occupied by a variety of populist parties and movements or by formerly mainstream parties captured by populist minorities. Their successes have morphed populism and its majoritarian democracy into an illiberal far right threatening democracy altogether.
At the local level, Europeanisation has been corresponded with efforts at strengthening federal and local powers through decentralisation and subsidiarity. These have been unevenly successful. While this has led to new dynamics, especially when urban areas have been empowered to manage their affairs, the transfer of powers to local authorities has been hampered by austerity and budget cuts from national to the local level, disempowering subnational administrations from delivery of services. The transfers of power upwards has not been matched by significant enough powers downwards. Rising tensions between levels of governance are visible across Europe, especially in Spain and the UK.
Horizontally, the spaces for decision-making have been transformed by globalisation and Europeanisation: the impact of policy choices is not coterminous with legitimate decision-making as public goods less and less are contained by national borders. Decision-making is dislocated across several interconnected spaces. Most policies now have a transnational dimension which also goes beyond the EU itself – migration, climate change are some of the obvious examples. For instance, housing policy, education, welfare are policies which are often managed at the local levels, but migration control, which has an impact on housing needs, is increasingly considered a foreign policy to be delegated to third states, in light of the inability of the EU and its member states to reform its immigration and integration policies.
Managing the complexity of contemporary policy requires joinedup decision making on transnational issues of pan-European concern. But these arguments and attempts are undermined by the inability of the political organisations to adapt the democratic discussion to such multi-level governance, of which Europe and the EU is the most advanced example world-wide. Who decides? Who is legitimated to decide? Who is accountable? Increasingly, policy-shaping involves a multitude of actors working at different levels, which include EU, national, subnational institutions, but also the private sector, NGOs, citizens associations. Decision-shaping and implementation is becoming more complex, but the democratic decision-making process has not adapted much to account for such complexity.
The EU is ideally placed to manage complex policy challenges and to seek compromises between technocracy and nationalism. The multi-level institutions and structures that comprise the EU can provide the spaces in which participative politics take place, bringing together transnational networks, civil society organisations, and community initiatives with local, regional, national and EU government. Focusing on specific issues close to citizens, such as the management of public goods, rather than generic questions about democracy, can endow new life and meaning to political participation, providing a new basis both for a renewal of European democracy and of the European project.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. “The future of European democracy” 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. Image by VitVit, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Dr Rosa Balfour is a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US. In September 2018 she was awarded a non-resident fellowship on Europe’s Futures at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Rosa is also a member of the Steering Committee of WIIS-Brussels (Women In International Security), an Associate Fellow at LSE Ideas, and a Senior Adviser to the European Policy Centre.