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After a troubled decade of multiple challenges, European democracy has been further strained by the coronavirus pandemic. While the health, economic, and social dimensions of the crisis have understandably attracted the most attention in policy and analytical debates, the pandemic’s political ramifications are also likely to be significant.

One narrative that has gained prominence is that the coronavirus presents profound dangers to European democracy. This is a complex matter, however, as most governments have assumed executive powers considered to be broadly necessary to contain the health crisis, and it remains uncertain whether these will entail long-term restrictions on democratic rights. The politics of the coronavirus are playing out at multiple levels, and democratic processes are being pulled and stretched in different directions.

Against this backdrop, this series of commentaries unpacks the possible democratic implications of the coronavirus. The authors dig deep in assessing how much the pandemic is actually testing the fragility of Europe’s democracy, and they look beyond the headlines to shed light on the political responses taking shape.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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The collection covers several interesting dimensions of the pandemic’s implications for democracy. It explores what democratic rights have and have not been put at risk, how the coronavirus might lead to new forms of European integration, and how the pandemic has affected European civil society. The series examines the incipient turn to more technocratic governance, the changing face of digital democracy, and the dangers of misinformation and divisive messaging. And it looks at political dynamics in three individual European countries: Germany, which is widely assumed to have performed well in the crisis, and Hungary and Poland, where democracy is most acutely menaced. The series concludes with thoughts on how a better European democratic strategy can be an integral part of coronavirus responses over the longer term.

The collection shows not only that the coronavirus aggravates many of the stresses that afflict European democracy but also that a measured perspective is required: many of the heightened risks are of an indirect or second-order nature. Counterbalancing emergent threats, the crisis has been sobering enough to propel many democratic reform efforts—in civil society, political opposition forces, and the digital sphere.

There is sufficient diversity in pandemic political trends to caution against overly bold, uniform narratives; in many senses, the coronavirus will stimulate existing positive and negative trends in European democracy. This collection of commentaries can only scratch the analytical surface but hopes to encourage reflection on these political issues, which will become increasingly important as the coronavirus crisis evolves.

This publication is part of Carnegie’s Reshaping European Democracy project.