Countering the illiberal trend in many countries, a spirit of democratic resistance is emerging across Europe, argues democracy expert Richard Youngs. There’s more direct democracy and new political parties focusing on democratic renewal. But the shift is still tentative and cautious.
Claudia Rolf: Mr. Youngs, democracy is periodically diagnosed to be in crisis. In Europe, as in other parts of the world, democracy is retreating and autocracy is gaining. Your new book entitled Rebuilding European Democracy is thus very timely. What motivated you to write it?
Richard Youngs: I had read so many books, articles, and press pieces stressing the mounting threats to democracy that I started to think it might be valuable to map what is being done to counter these trends. The debate about democracy has become very downbeat, even dramatically apocalyptic, and sometimes perhaps a little repetitive in its focus on the populist threat. Without downplaying the severity of democratic decay, I thought it would be novel and interesting to come at the issue from a different perspective and assess the significance of pro-democratic efforts and trends.
In the face of democratic erosion and illiberal politics, you focus on how democratic renewal can succeed and explore promising signs of democratic innovation. What is your central message and why is it different?
The book unpacks a wealth of efforts to defend and rethink democracy that have gained traction across Europe in the last several years. Protests have spread, organized civil society has thickened, and deliberative forums have multiplied in number. Also, more direct-democracy votes now take place at local level and new political parties have focused on democratic renewal. Moreover, a second wave of innovative forms of digital democracy has taken shape, and the EU is beginning to get more serious both about citizen participation and responding more robustly to anti-democratic actions. The book’s message is distinctive because it gives weight to democratic efforts across all these spheres and all of these different types of democratic innovation. Rather than making a case for just one type of renewal, the book suggests that democratic renewal has real significance at present precisely because so many diverse reform efforts are underway at so many different levels of democratic politics.
Recently, illiberal actors have been successful in limiting democratic and civic spaces. Therefore, critics might say you are being too optimistic about democracy and the potential that democratic innovations may unlock. Is this fair?
The book’s premise is in no way to suggest that all is well with European democracy, but rather to take an open and questioning look at whether the many efforts to defend and improve democracy amount to very much – or not. Actually, the book comes to a rather hedged conclusion: it argues that democratic renewal has gained real momentum, and that many accounts of democratic regression tend to sideline this positive side of the equation. But it also insists that democratic efforts remain too tentative, too cautious, too tame, and too fragmented to turn trends strongly in a positive direction.
The coronavirus is a significant threat to public health. But the impact on democracy is evident, too. In response to the pandemic, governments have acted with significant implications for fundamental freedoms and civic space. Does Covid-19 make things worse for democratic reform?
Yes, the pandemic places additional stress and strain on democratic quality; and the strains may intensify in the long post-Covid period as the politics of economic recovery are likely to be fraught and rocky. Still, the pandemic has also injected momentum into democratic renewal, too. Civil society has become even more active, ever more authorities are consulting with citizens over how they manage the crisis, and people have organized through local community initiatives both to hold governments to account and to compensate for official failings. In essence, Covid-19 intensifies the challenges to democracy but also seems to be galvanizing citizen demands for more responsive and inclusive governance.
What are the crucial factors in determining whether democracy improves across Europe?
I am not sure there is any one factor capable of making a dramatic difference. I doubt any single, big move or change is going to “solve” democracy’s crisis. It is more likely that lots of small efforts to improve democracy will co-exist alongside the multiple threats to democracy that we know well, and this clash will persist almost indefinitely. In this sense, one challenge is whether ways can be found to lock together the many small-scale reform initiatives and different routes to democratic renewal into a more cohesive, less fragmented agenda for rebuilding democracy that is capable of having greater impact at the level of high politics.
Richard Youngs is Senior Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe and author of Rebuilding European Democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Robert Bosch Stiftung collaborate in a strategic partnership.
Claudia Rolf is Program Director for Democracy at the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
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