Rosa BalfourSenior fellow, Europe program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
No, and the question should not be just about protecting democracy, but about making it healthier and meaningful to Europeans. Disinformation and foreign interference are part of the problem, but it would be a mistake to blame Europe’s ailments on exogenous factors. An EU agency will not fix things—at best, it may help equip the EU to better deal with these specific threats.
A deeper look into how democracy is failing in Europe shows that there is much diversity across the continent and that the problems are not confined to Central Europe—though Hungary is successfully pioneering the rise of authoritarianism within the EU. Surveillance policies, antiterrorism, and repressive migration policies are curbing civil society. Corruption and bad governance are eroding trust in institutions. And the traditional institutions of democracy are not performing their roles of representation—the Brexit tragedy being a prime example of how the world’s oldest democracy is failing.
A shake-up of European politics and society is needed, but the health of democracy is not something that can be left to the EU. It needs far deeper and broader thinking and action to improve civic engagement and political reform. The goal: to make democracy meaningful and fit for the twenty-first century.
Thorsten BennerCo-founder and director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)
Macron is right about better cooperation on cybersecurity and banning foreign funding of parties. But getting serious about defending democracy will take more than setting up a fancy new European agency with a slippery-slope mandate to regulate speech. Most of all, we need mandatory transparency requirements. It’s a scandal that national parliaments haven’t passed laws that require full transparency for all online political advertising. Most outside influence by authoritarian players comes through open doors. Elites in China, Russia, the Gulf, and elsewhere have understood that almost anything (including political influence) in our capitalist societies can be bought. Following the money is key. That is why media agencies, universities, think tanks, lobbyists, bankers, and lawyers should have to disclose any financial ties to authoritarian states and companies. Like Germany has done recently, all EU countries should declare media as part of the critical infrastructure and be ready to block any unfriendly foreign takeovers. We need EU-wide public and foundation investment in high-quality journalism, including at the local level and not just in problem countries like Hungary. Finally: If the EU fails to rein in authoritarians in our midst, such as Orbán, how can we expect to self-confidently assert liberal democracy against authoritarian influence from outside Europe?
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
Europe is not doing enough to protect its democracy, either from domestic or foreign enemies. The EU’s mistake, in its post-Cold War euphoria, was to think that democracy’s spread was unstoppable. That created two problems. First, the EU paid too little attention to how undemocratic major powers might defend their own systems of governance against the encroachment of EU norms and values. That left it vulnerable to Russian cultivation of the European populist right wing; China’s use of economic leverage to undermine EU unity on human rights questions; and dark money from right-wing U.S. interests influencing politics in EU member states. Second, it created an accession mechanism that obliged applicant countries to respect the principles of democracy and the rule of law, but made it easy for them to violate EU values once they were members and hard for the Commission or their fellow member states to punish bad behavior. The election of the European Parliament and nomination of a new European Commission this year ought to be an opportunity to take up President Macron’s ideas for reinforcing the EU’s instruments for defending democracy; but if more representatives of illiberal parties are elected to the Parliament, the prospects for positive change will be bleak.
Cristina BuzasuPrincipal manager at the European Bank for Reconstruction at Development
Europe and its member states need to do more to protect their democracies. This includes shielding electoral processes from manipulation at the national level, but also—and perhaps more importantly—protecting European values and principles, which are the foundation of European democracy.
However, some elected leaders in several EU countries are themselves riding the tide of populism and are manipulating voters for electoral gains. They are exploiting people’s frustrations and fears and making false promises.
To fight the danger of populism and nationalism, new and innovative ways of engaging with voters are necessary. European political parties must demonstrate a renewed emphasis on citizen engagement, as well as more long-term thinking and solutions adapted to the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Moreover, the EU itself should reestablish its legitimacy by becoming more democratic and reconnecting with its citizens. A new paradigm of EU integration is needed from the bottom-up. This is because citizens remain the main defenders of democracy. A strong civil society is critical to democracy’s resilience, even in countries where it is subject to severe restrictions. Civil society should be empowered, and CSOs need to play a more prominent role in democratic governance, decisionmaking, policy implementation, and monitoring.
David CadierResearcher at CERI-Sciences Po
Europe’s democracy is challenged both on its values and processes, from the weakening of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland to the financial, political, and cyber meddling by external powers. What should be done and what should be avoided?
The need to better safeguard European political systems from outside interference should not overshadow the need to strengthen their internal resilience, address citizens’ distrust toward political elites, and preserve the rule of law. Nor should it allow for responses departing from democratic values.
The struggle against disinformation is a case in point. Outside interference aims to undermine the confidence in—and the legitimacy of—democratic institutions. However, by fueling confusion and signaling weakness, radical or hysterical reactions to disinformation risks eroding confidence. If hijacked by political entrepreneurs to impose their own essentialist vision, countermeasures to disinformation could end up being counterproductive. Several initiatives on disinformation tend to exhibit the very ideological bias and methodological flaws they are supposed to combat. Some even end up recommending “guiding” citizens’ attention.
Europe must do more to protect its democracies. A dedicated agency might help define and coordinate member-state responses. But, as suggested by the French president, it should be staffed with independent experts from civil society. And its statutes will need to be carefully defined. Would it, for instance, look into suspicions of coordinated cyber campaigns against anti-government protests inside EU member states, as happened in Poland in the summer of 2017?
Roland FreudensteinPolicy Director at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies
No, it isn’t. That refers, first of all, to our willingness and ability to robustly react to Putin’s threats, China’s sharp power, and our own autocrats in places like Hungary or Poland. In all these cases, governments and institutions such as the EU need to pony up, but the brunt will have to be borne by parties, think tanks, and networks of individuals—in other words, civil society.
But that also refers to our willingness and ability to detect shifts in public opinion, which may seem backward-looking and small-minded to us global citizens, but feel perfectly rational to large minorities, if not majorities, in Western democracies. Take, for example, the insight that open borders can endanger open society, if uncontrolled mass migration (such as in 2015) leads to parallel societies in many of our cities. For public media in much of Western Europe to claim that migration is always good and refugees are welcome is also endangering democracy if it is in such stark contrast to people’s daily experience with the reality of the migration of recent years.
That is why protecting our constitutions and values through EU mechanisms as well as through civil society is as important as making sure migrants accept those values, protecting EU external borders, and honestly talking about the dark sides of migration.
Sophia GastonDirector of the Centre for Social and Political Risk, and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science
After a sluggish start, Europe is beginning to wake up to the threat posed by external states and their new forms of hybrid warfare. Their social and political playbook has become familiar—identifying burgeoning cleavages around sensitive issues and seeking to exacerbate these in the hope of producing destabilizing outcomes that challenge national institutions. While the EU and its member states begin to retaliate towards this new phase of democratic interference, the more intractable social issues that enable it to succeed continue to lie unaddressed. Just as it is more comfortable for politicians to lay the blame for the entirety of our current challenges at social media, it is easier for them to establish safeguards and sanctions toward malign states than confront the heavy lifting within their own electorates. The risks posed by domestic interference from foreign powers must be taken seriously and inspire clear action. But the future of our democracies will ultimately be determined by how we respond to the rising social and political polarization on which they seek to capitalize.
Richard GiragosianDirector of the Regional Studies Center, Armenia
Yes, Europe is doing enough to protect its democracy, but it still needs to do more. Under pressure from within, the European project faces an unprecedented crisis, while weathering external threats to security and stability means that the stakes could not be higher.
Despite its current “crisis of confidence,” composed of an unexpected degree of unpredictability and a weakness of resolve from the United States, Europe is stepping up in several ways.
First, Europe is exceeding expectations by filling a security vacuum as the sole reliable bedrock of a Western alliance.
Second, despite a late start, Europe is now defining and defending its core values, leveraging its appeal of cooperation over the threat of coercion. Moreover, as its authoritarian opponents are better at losing friends and gaining enemies, Europe still exerts an appeal for many.
A third example of Europe’s defense stems from the success of the Eastern Partnership program, which has been vindicated by a rare victory of nonviolent “people power” in Armenia. And as a victory for European values too, the Velvet Revolution in Armenia also shows that the future lies with the democratic ideals of Europe—not the dictatorial ideas of more authoritarian countries.
Shada IslamDirector of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe
European democracies are vulnerable to external manipulation and misleading information. But the real danger facing Europe comes from within. The deepening divide within Europe between those who are still proud to call themselves liberal democrats and the increasing number of governments that make no secret of their illiberal character pose a much more potent threat to Europe’s future.
The growing number of political parties and groups which are unashamed about adopting and promoting Far Right, racist, and xenophobic—not to mention euroskeptic—sentiments are not only turning their back on Europe’s core values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and undermining the EU from within; they are also eroding its role and influence abroad. The EU must stop this rot, reconnect with citizens, regain their trust, and above all get them to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections. This requires that Europe’s non-populist politicians stop embracing the toxic rhetoric of the Far Right and tell the true story of Europe’s economic need for migrants and the economic and societal value of diversity.
The good news is that across Europe, peoples’ networks are being established as civil society becomes increasingly involved in debates on European democracy. For democracy to thrive, the European body politic must become truly inclusive through the active participation of women, youth, migrants, and ethnic minorities.
Anatol IttenManaging director at the Disrupted Societies Institute
Democracy and Europe are married. As in every deep relationship, there comes a time of crisis—a crisis of orientation and confidence, to be precise. The marriage might not radiate the same energy as at the beginning, the mutual inspiration may have faded, and the reasons why the couple fit so well together are long forgotten. There is still this comforting certainty of routine, yet one knows there is something looming in the dark.
The danger of an intruder is answered with isolation and control. Any interference has to be prevented. Any flirt condemned. Every step watched. While a little jealousy may spice things up, isolation and control will not protect the marriage from eroding because they cannot address the inner void. Emptiness is the real danger between democracy and Europe.
And therein lays my answer: only if we can help democracy and Europe to reapproach each other, to become more receptive to each other’s needs, only then will immoral flirts and external manipulations hit on less fertile ground. The best way to ensure that a marriage continues to thrive happily ever after is to feed it continuously from within, rather than seal it off from the outside.
Josef JanningHead of the Berlin office and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
No, Europe isn’t doing enough to protect its democracy—though the creation of another agency doesn’t appear to be the right response to the challenge. Populist rhetoric and populist politics provide the best opportunities for external actors to disrupt societies, weaken political institutions, and create conflict within the EU. To counter such influence, an open, honest, and inclusive political discourse is needed on the level of national politics. It is the level of member states where the defense of European democracy is weakest and where the Brussels blame game flourishes.
Disinformation and disruptive communication campaigns may need technological means to control their impact; far more important, however, will be to strengthen the resilience of citizens by expanding their political understanding and reinforcing the value base of a democratic society. Democracies are best protected by democrats. To that end, political education needs to become part of school curricula and be offered on all levels of higher education. If money needs to be spent on the issue, it should thus go to EU-wide politische Bildung (political education), building on that which proved its value in the education of young Germans following the defeat of the Nazi regime.
Balázs JarábikNonresident scholar, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Germany’s post-war constitutional law is built on the approach of “militant democracy,” which means regulating individual freedoms to protect the democratic order. French President Emmanuel Macron`s ideas may be following this approach—but is it the right time for this?
Macron’s proposal is about further centralization while the crisis is more the result of diverse interests and preferences. Indeed, fighting manipulations and fact checking may sound like an attempt to restrict other opinions and more bureaucracy. They seldom address decentralized threats, often from non-state actors.
Recent surveys about fake news dismiss the belief that citizens live in their own bubble and would not be exposed to different opinions.
Reducing trust in institutions is more the result of politics seeming, for many, to be captured by the interests of the rich. Meanwhile, the EU has cemented its belief in technocratic approaches rather than addressing the real problems of economic governance, such as widening inequality.
Because much of the source of disinformation is internal, the EU can’t develop an internal democracy strategy until it clarifies its own future— and that is fueling much speculation itself. Regulating social media and exposing external financial sources is a must, but it will be far from sufficient until the future of the European architecture is made secure and economic governance is no longer perceived as catering to the rich.
Elisa LironiSenior Manager, European Democracy at the European Citizen Action Service
A good defense starts from a position of courage, not from a position of fear. Fear brings decisionmakers to ban, to regulate, and to constrain what they believe they cannot control. French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to create an agency to protect democracies is an example of a fear-based, reactive strategy against the challenges of this global digital age.
A better strategy may be to defend democracy from a position of strength. Europe needs to embrace the changes progress has brought about. Fast-paced, growing digital tools have opened new doors for democracy: Citizens can directly voice their concerns and frustrations to their politicians. And digital platforms allow them to be not only passive receivers of information but also to co-create and share news at the speed of the light across the globe.
In this context, European governments need to take decisive action to upgrade our democracies. Together, they should foster grassroots e-democracy initiatives; develop new, structured participatory channels to allow citizens to effectively collaborate with policymakers; and they need to create public policy and public governance mechanisms that harness the power of the technology sector.
That is how democracy can be safeguarded: not by fearfully shielding it from the challenges of this global digital age, but by courageously upgrading democracy to channel the opportunities those challenges bring.
Marietje SchaakeMember of the European Parliament
No. Despite several examples of hacking and foreign election meddling, the responses throughout Europe remain fragmented and weak. How many more wake-up calls do people need? There is hardly a more urgent matter than the protection of the democratic rights of EU citizens as they vote in the European Parliament elections in May and in several national elections.
To avoid manipulation through social media, we need transparency on who funds advertisements. This should include algorithmic accountability of the business models of social media companies, so that we know what the impact of conspiracy theories and hyper polarization are on our democracies. Additionally, microtargeting on the basis of gender, sex, religion, or political opinion should be scrutinized and restricted where legally possible.
Now that all elections are digitized, stress tests of technologies used, as well as funding cybersecurity measures, are key. Campaign staff need training in methods that can improve the resilience of democracy. Furthermore, political parties and candidates should explicitly commit to not use doxed or stolen data against opponents and to not use botnets without being transparent about it. They should disclose who funds them, even if laws do not yet require it. All this is part of the pledge for election integrity that I hope all candidates and parties will take. It is a shared and urgent responsibility for us all to do what we can to protect our democracy.
Corina StratulatHead of the European Politics and Institutions program and senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre
While some Europeans are purposefully subverting democracy, and others seek comfort in the conviction that their established democratic institutions can withstand shocks, the overall trend is for everyone to express concern about the future of democracy. Mainstream politicians are eager to sound the alarm about radical populists dismantling democracy at the national and European levels, while citizens tend to manifest their angst by voting for those very same radical populist challengers, taking them for the “true democrats” they claim to be. Despite so much beating of public and official breasts, Europe is still not doing enough to protect its democracy.
As modern drivers of change (like globalization, technological advances, aging societies, and migration) continue to throw Europe’s political, economic, and social models into question, the continent should be open to rethinking its sacred concepts and institutions to respond to altered circumstances. Adaptability is today’s operational word. But in seeking twenty-first-century approaches to translate democratic goals into practice, Europe should draw a thick, red line in front of its liberal values. The fate of democracy hinges on Europe proving flexibility to compromise on everything—except its liberal core.
Tessa SzyszkowitzUK correspondent for the Austrian news magazine Profil
After the Second World War, the EU was established as an institutional attempt to never let war, destruction, and tyranny come over European nations again. We, the children of the founders, grew up taking the values of our post-war society for granted. With the accession of the Eastern European countries to the EU, we thought democracy had been established across the whole of Europe.
But recent developments have challenged the strength of the democratic foundations we thought we had solidly built. Inside the EU, member states such as Hungary or Poland are threatening Europe’s democratic institutions. From outside the EU, Russia is trying to interfere in political processes in Western countries, as the 2016 Brexit referendum has shown.
As former Israeli deputy prime minister Dan Meridor put it to me recently: “Democracy is in danger because there is no lobby for it.” Meridor is quite right to think that we need to start actively defending democratic principles. Macron’s proposal for a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies should therefore be welcomed by EU member states. Democracy needs a lobby. We, the people of Europe, should fill it and fight for it.
Mirjana TomićJournalist and project manager at Forum Journalismus und Medien in Vienna (FJUM_WIEN)
Europe is not doing enough to protect its democracy. The creation of the European Agency for the Protection of Democracies, as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, would not strengthen democracy because some European politicians actively undermine it. Agency advisers could only provide certain technical solutions.
European democracy is not only threated by political forces from outside the union and by cyber- generated hate. External forces exploit national weaknesses. Are European countries doing enough to defend EU values and counter hate speech through education and dialogue? Are politicians doing enough to support independent media? Are politicians doing enough to mitigate economic inequities and fight corruption? Is Europe doing enough to punish those who fail to protect democratic principles? Do short-term political calculations, at home and abroad, take precedence over values?
Although European democratic experiences vary—from countries with a long democratic tradition to democratic novices — citizens across the board are losing faith in institutions and processes. Winning back citizens’ trust constitutes a challenge on both the European and national level. The best way to protect democracy is by always defending its principles. Both deeds and perceptions matter.
Zsuzsanna VeghResearch fellow, Comparative Politics at the European University Viadriana Frankfurt (oder)
President Macron is right in calling for protection against external interference in European politics. However, strengthening our defenses against cyberattacks or foreign funding is just one side of the story. Sadly, European democracy today is also threatened from within. What’s more, the democratic decline that has unfolded in Hungary since 2010 clearly shows that it has been unable to defend itself.
While it might be tempting to dismiss Prime Minister Orbán’s authoritarian tendencies as the problems of one member state, the current Fidesz-EPP drama illustrates perfectly how one government abandoning European values can grow into a European challenge. Not only has the EPP been irresponsibly dismissive with its “redlines” over the years, the European Commission has also been slow to act, often missing the bigger picture and ending up as a bystander to Hungary’s backsliding rather than an active protector of the treaties, including Article 2.
Due to the tightly-knit political relations in the EU, the collapse of respect for democratic values and principles in one state shakes the democratic foundations and functioning of the whole union. If we are not able to reverse and prevent such developments then, eventually, there might not remain much to protect.
Richard YoungsSenior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program at Carnegie Europe
Beyond two or three cases of major democratic rollback, in most EU states democracy does not need to be saved so much as be retuned and replenished.
Macron’s proposed European Agency for the Protection of Democracies focuses on the issue of protecting elections from outside cyberattacks, but this is one very small part of Europe’s wider democracy challenge. His calls for bans on certain types of online speech or external funding need to be looked at with great care: these may be justified in extreme cases but are not particularly liberal responses to illiberalism. Such bans will backfire against EU efforts to support democracy elsewhere in the world.
Formal, institutional Europe may be behind the curve, but European citizens are far more active in designing strategies for democratic resilience and renewal. On-the-ground developments have already moved beyond the rather stale and overly repetitive debates about populism and its causes. Macron’s “European renaissance” proposals advocate a series of citizens’ panels. But these need to be very different from the recently concluded European Citizens Consultations that did not meet the basic criteria for democratic participation.
Democratic regeneration will be a long and bumpy process, requiring multiple-level and often undramatic grassroots changes more than grand designs for new agencies and European relaunches that tend to accumulate like prologues to unwritten books. If Macron is right that democracy has lost vibrancy because of heavy institutional torpor, it would seem almost contradictory to think this problem can be solved by another top-down template to create more institutions.