It’s Not All About Populism: People’s Democracy Thrives Across Europe | Richard young
The past decade has been deadly for the health of European democracy. The dramatic authoritarian shifts in Hungary and Poland have drawn the most attention, but nearly all European governments have eroded civil liberties, judicial independence and civil society.
With Covid accentuating many of the challenges posed by populism, disinformation and collapsing public trust, the narrative of a democracy in crisis is now well established. Yet, as the threats have multiplied, so have the efforts to defend and rethink Europe’s democratic practices.
Most spontaneously, there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of mass protests, even during the pandemic, much in favor of democratic values. People mobilized against corruption or around specific political issues, and then embarked on a broader democratic reform agenda. This was the case in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia, the women’s strike in Poland, the Sardines movement in Italy, the Million Moments movement in the Czech Republic and the protests in Malta initially sparked by the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Climate movements such as Extinction Rebellion are also beginning to marry their ecological demands with concerns about democratic reform. People have invented new forms of protest under Covid: for example, Polish citizens protested against new abortion laws and the election calendar by taking their cars in procession, honking their horns and sounding alarms by their windows, always in full respect of the restrictions on the public. gatherings.
New civil society initiatives aim to combat polarization. One example is a project called Arguments Against Aggression, which tries to equip people with more empathetic communication and debate skills than those typically experienced on social media and which has now been carried out in seven EU Member States. At the same time, the Covid has given rise to hundreds of civic assistance initiatives, such as En Première Ligne in France, whose website puts people in need of help directly in touch with local volunteers. Civil society organizations are also working more closely with protest movements. The Corruption Kills group in Romania, for example, was born out of anti-corruption protests and a wave of public anger over the deaths of more than 60 people in a nightclub fire. Online initiatives, on the other hand, are harnessing the positive democratic potential of digital technology, finding new formats for integrating citizens’ perspectives into policymaking.
More and more citizens’ assemblies have emerged. Alongside well-known examples in Ireland, Belgium and Estonia, and the Climate Assembly in France, local advisory bodies have sprung up in cities in Poland, Spain and elsewhere. Citizen initiatives linked to Covid have surfaced for example in Bristol, Chemnitz, Murcia and Nantes.
And, while the Brexit vote has highlighted the shortcomings of direct democracy, local referendums are increasingly giving citizens a direct voice in their communities. Across Eastern Europe, they have provided a modest antidote to populism at the national level by focusing on practical local issues. Other examples are infrastructure projects in Greece and the Czech Republic.
The formation of new political parties across Europe over the past decade is also unprecedented. Many of these new movements put forward an agenda of democratic renewal. Apart from the now familiar stories of En Marche in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain, new parties based in part on the dynamics of social movements have gained ground. These include Alternative in Denmark, Agora in Belgium, Bij1 in the Netherlands, Momentum in Hungary and USR in Romania. In Poland, a batch of new parties includes Modern (Nowoczesna), Left Together (Razem) and Poland 2050. These new companies are easy to criticize for their internal problems, political inconsistencies and still limited voting shares. Yet their emergence reflects a real interest in shifting part of the energy and ethics of citizen activism into party politics.
The EU is also slowly putting pressure on governments that violate democratic standards. It is, of course, struggling with Poland and Hungary, but what is less noticeable is that EU pressure has galvanized rule of law improvements in Romania and Malta. The ongoing conference on the future of Europe also gives citizens an unprecedented voice both in the reform of the EU itself and in specific policy areas.
The sheer scale of these initiatives is striking. And, rather than a single model of democratic expression, we are witnessing a range of political activity, from spontaneous mass engagement through organized civil society networks to small-scale deliberative forums, to adjustments. political parties, digital democracy and participation at EU level. Each brings distinctive ingredients to the table of democratic renewal.
Yet none have advanced far enough to reverse democratic erosion. If a spirit of European democratic renewal has gained momentum, its momentum is still fragile. A more ambitious political reform agenda is needed and the many initiatives have yet to come together to achieve it.
Unlike a vigorous bottom-up civic and community renewal, governments remain overly cautious. Concerns about illiberal populist forces have spurred reform efforts, but have also held back them. Many governments seem to understand that broader popular participation is needed to undermine populists, but they also fear that giving more space and influence to public opinion on certain issues could simply kick things off. whip to illiberalism.
The narrative of the democratic crisis and the populist push is too biased. European politics are in fact in a state of back and forth between democratic retreat and democratic renewal. Small-scale democratic initiatives are taking shape across Europe, and the popular momentum behind them is exciting. But these initiatives have yet to form part of a truly powerful and radical reform program. Different forms of democratic renewal must begin to work hand in hand. Only then will they have any hope of decisively pushing back illiberal forces and power grabbing governments.
Richard Youngs is Senior Research Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe, Professor of International Relations at the University of Warwick, and author of Rebuilding European Democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age, to be released in October.