For the last two years, the Towards a Citizens’ Union (2CU) project of the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, has assessed democratic trends across the European Union. As this project concludes, a number of important issues emerge from its rich programme of on-the-ground research.

The project has benefitted from the work of partner institutes in the majority of EU member states with strong local knowledge and able to undertake detailed empirical research within their own countries. This has helped build a picture of European democracy from the bottom-up and with a huge amount of extremely granular material.

Richard Youngs
Youngs is an expert on the foreign policy of the European Union, in particular on questions of democracy support.
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A striking feature of this mass of information is the sheer variation in political trends across Europe. Today much analysis of EU politics is framed in terms of a single and dramatic narrative of pan-European democratic crisis. In contrast, our project suggests that a much messier set of developments defines changes to European democracy. The project’s detailed study of the many different dimensions of democratic change cautions against parsimony. While there are clearly shared challenges across member states, country contrasts are probably more striking than any all-encompassing thread of democratic evolution.

In some states, democracy has indeed been in the thralls of existential crisis, and yet in others its current condition is un-dramatic and even modestly improved in some areas. Some EU governments have opened up to new forms of participation, but others have been reluctant to do so. In some there is stifling state control, while in others ungovernable pluralism seems to be the greater peril. In some, party systems have begun to realign, while in others mainstream coalitions have hunkered down in even more self-protective fashion. In some, parliaments have lost power and prestige, while in others they have taken on new functions and begun to reassert themselves over the executive.

Some citizens seem to be searching for a different type of democracy, away from traditional representative channels; in other countries, dissatisfaction is with specific parties and leaders more than with the system as such. In some countries, the underlying driver of so much concern is popular antipathy towards core liberal values; in other states, this trend is much less palpable and the nativist-populist prism is of less relevance. And meanwhile at the EU level, while some democracy problems have deepened, promising new reform initiatives have also taken shape.

A question arises from these particularities: is European democracy subject to what is simply a morass of contingent changes, some positive for democracy and others with more negative implications, all emerging from nationally specific circumstances and without much of a overall direction to them? Or are there patterns among the diversity of political developments – more directional changes that tell us something about the longer-term shape of European democracy?

Underlying Patterns

The disparity of current trends may make it impossible to trace any kind of grand theory of European democracy and it is certainly difficult to discern any obvious or single teleological endpoint to which democratic systems may be headed – either positive or negative. The prominent narratives of crisis and disruption appear too alarmist to fit some national contexts. A business-as-usual lens is too sanguine to fit others. The ubiquitously posited populist surge is a spectre more pressing in some contexts than in others.

Yet at least some fairly general patterns are visible. Three common, broad concerns emerge from our project. These may express themselves in different forms or spur different kinds of claim from citizens in each national context, but they are shared concerns that seem to be propelling identifiable directions of change across Europe.

First, an incipient downward shift in forms of accountability is evident. Behind the many reform initiatives that our project has unpacked is an apparent interest in citizens gaining more direct hold of public decisions. This sentiment has prompted different kinds of democratic innovation – whether online petitions, participative assemblies, consultations or local referendums. The common thread linking these is an ethos of bringing democratic control and monitoring down to a more local level and ‘closer’ to the apocryphal ordinary citizen.

A second trend is a move from passive to active democratic engagement. This is a common spine of recent EU political developments. It is most clearly evident in the spiralling number of pro-democracy protests, citizen assemblies and civil society initiatives. Yet it is equally evident in moves to build an ethos of active citizenship into more traditional democratic channels like political parties and parliaments. It also infuses the spirit of developments in recent years at the EU level.

Curiously, many European governments have become uneasily schizophrenic about these trends towards more locally appropriated, active democratic forms. Their actions have both prompted but also resisted this direction of travel. Many governments and local authorities have encouraged such developments as a possible way of quelling public frustration with elites and existing institutional structures. But at the same time they have commonly sought to limit or control them, nervous about what more searching and combustible forms of active democratic engagement might produce in an apparent age of populist illiberalism and radical questioning of the status quo. This is the still largely unmapped frontier of current tensions and debates at which the future of European democracy is being fought out: the simultaneous push for more open-ended forms of democratic engagement, on the one hand, and for more controlled forms of democracy, on the other hand.

A third pattern to emerge from the 2CU project relates to the EU level. There appears to be a growing expectation at many different levels of political engagement – from individual citizens through to political parties, parliaments, governments and supranational bodies – that the EU needs to prove itself relevant to democratic regeneration. Our case studies reveal how the EU level is still a problem that in multiple ways compounds Europe’s democratic shortfalls. Yet, the very depth of this concern has begun to galvanise wider recognition that democratic decay cannot be tackled without far-reaching change at the EU level.

Much of the project’s work speaks to the increasingly evident inter-relationships between the national and EU levels. National democracy cannot be protected or enhanced without reform at the EU level; and democratic reform at the EU level will not suffice without reform at the national and sub-national levels. An interesting complexity is that while much focus in democratic innovation has been at a very local level, so too has it intensified at the EU level.

This duality might be seen as paradoxical and challenging to the future evolution of European democracy. In a world of sharper geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry, a lot of the current EU debate is about size: many want to see the EU act as a large power to match other large powers and blocs. Yet it is equally clear that many citizens want power brought downwards and that their concerns are with proximity and access to decision-making, more than with the EU being a singular, power-oriented behemoth. Quite how these twin concerns are to be reconciled remains unclear: how can the new nominally ‘geopolitical’ Commission also be the Commission that gives ‘a new push for democracy’ when these might ask for opposite kinds of changes? The pattern behind current political developments might be described as a quest for localised Europeanism. Whether and how this is achievable will be a defining issue for the EU’s future.

A Single European Democracy Policy?

In sum, some patterns are visible – at least in relatively faint contours – among the particularities of national politics. Yet, what our project also shows is that there is no comprehensive ‘democracy policy agenda’ across Europe but rather a highly fragmented collection of individual policy responses, civil society initiatives, citizen uprisings, political-party adjustments, parliamentary efforts and digital strategies.

This is true at the national level, within each member state. But it is even more striking at the EU level. At the EU level, the partial and splintered nature of democracy innovations is even more marked – and even more debilitating in terms of the impact that the wide array of reform efforts has so far had. This lack of integrative thinking and action on democracy is evident both across different areas of democratic reform – citizens, civil society, parties, parliaments, local authorities, EU bodies – and between different national-level initiatives.

Of course, all areas of EU policy suffer from problems of coherence and strive with different degrees of success to bring their diverse component parts together in a meaningful whole. But in many areas – like climate change, competitiveness, technology or external relations – the EU has at least made some headway in crafting over-arching strategies and joining together the various relevant elements of a given policy domain.

This is not the case in the area of democracy. Over time, the EU has developed a single European market and a single European currency. It endeavours constantly to find its way towards a single European energy policy. Many diplomats strive for elements of a single European foreign policy. Yet, the notion of a single European democracy policy has never been raised. It is not even part of the EU lexicon.

EU policies have not really got to grips with the underlying changes driving changes to democracy – whether in positive or negative directions. Rather, policies embody a scattergun of partial initiatives. In respect of European democracy, most actors agree on and even stress the need for reform and concerted effort to push back against strands of democratic erosion. In practice, however, each sees democratic improvement through its own particular prism. Political parties work for changes to political parties. Parliaments see the solution lying in parliamentary changes. Civic organisations advance ideas for getting civic groups more involved. Organisation involved in citizen assemblies champion this fast spreading form of participation. Tech experts work separately in the realms of digital democracy initiatives.

The EU could benefit from a single ‘hub’ or ‘one-stop shop’ to serve as a focal point covering all these different areas and dealing with democratic reform in an all-inclusive sense – a unit and/or a single person charged with bringing all the different arena of democratic change together in a single policy framework.

This is not in any way to advocate moves towards a single political system that seeks to replicate national-level democratic structures at the EU level. This is probably neither feasible nor desirable. Arguably, a strength of many of the initiatives explored in the 2CU project lies in their local roots and the way reform efforts are tailored to the specificities of different national and sub-national contexts. Replenishing the legitimacy of European democracy will rightly and necessarily entail reforms at multiple different levels of reform. The appropriate balance between different types of democracy will vary across these different contexts.

However, precisely because of this need to rebuild democratic citizenship through a complex combination of representative, participative, deliberative and digital democracy, the EU as a whole needs some kind of hub to consider the state of European democracy in its most comprehensive and integral sense. This one-stop shop would coalesce all the different areas of democratic change across Europe and build a picture of how they relate to each other. It would build linkages between those working on reforms across the different arenas of democratic accountability. It would assess how different forms of democratic regression might require different forms of response. It would work to reduce the risk of different areas of reform undercutting each other.

A promising development is that one Commissioner, Dubravka Šuica, now has overall responsibility for democracy. But elements of fragmentation still exist. The proposed new action plan for democracy appears to break the issue of online threats to elections away from other areas of reform. The debates about a new Spitzenkandidaten system and enhanced powers for the European Parliament are narrowly about negotiations with that institution. There is no EU-level mechanism to feed in best-practice learning from the myriad national and sub-national experiments with e-petitions and legislative crowdsourcing.

The policy challenge in this sense lies in the EU juggling both the patterns and particularities in European democracy. It needs to take heed of widening particularities but also draw out emergent common patterns that require common kinds of innovation. Our project concludes just as the Conference on the Future of Europe prepares to kick off, with one of its stated aims to improve democratic processes. The Conference presents an opportunity for the EU to consider some kind of cohering democracy hub. This would help take forward more proactive EU strategy for developing new kinds of democratic accountability and representation, and for encouraging democracy in its most promising long-term directions.

This policy contribution is published by the Centre for European Policy Studies as part of the Towards a Citizens’ Union project of the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. It was written to conclude the project’s third and final volume, titled Deliberative Democracy in the EU: Countering Populism with Participation and Debate. Its aim is to summarize the project’s main findings and draw out their policy implications.

This article is also part of Carnegie’s Reshaping European Democracy initiative.