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Europe’s democratic difficulties Elections need to allow the possibility of some meaningful political change

Protesters demonstrating against the right-wing government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Credit: Laszlo Balogh / Getty

Protesters demonstrating against the right-wing government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Credit: Laszlo Balogh / Getty

November 12, 2018   5 mins

There are two different stories of democracy’s afflictions in Europe being told at this political moment.

The first, is a story framed around democratic values and the electoral rise of parties that appear to threaten those values because they repudiate the democratic ideal of equality between citizens. In practice, of course, democracies never realise such an ideal even in regard to voting, since they invariably restrict the franchise by age and for prisoners. But as this ideal has come to dominate much of the discourse of democracy, democrats can no longer make arguments for other exclusions to the franchise, or to anyone’s legally protected rights.

Neither can they overtly deny the equality of citizens by privileging the historical, cultural or ethnic identity of any group of them over any others. Consequently, parties that explicitly and unreservedly reject multiculturalism ‚Äď such as¬†Lega in Italy, the Freedom Party in Austria, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands ‚Äďmake themselves parties in conflict with democratic values. (In this story, multiculturalism has become essential to liberalism, which is essential to democracy.)

The strongest manifestation of such an attack on democratic values is the Fidesz government in Hungary led by Viktor Orb√°n, which having now been in power for eight years has systematically deployed anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric as a central electoral strategy, and acted against any manifestations of multiculturalism in practice.

Orbán’s government also appears to threaten the conditions of a liberal democracy by running roughshod over freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, the separation of government and the party in campaign expenditure, as well as by effectively ending the existence of the Central European University in Budapest. In doing so, Orbán appears to treat democracy as a means, through its majoritarian features, to other ends, not least the consolidation of personal power.

Seen from Orbán’s vantage point, however, his disruption is not to democracy, but to liberalism. For Orbán, he is a democrat, and the difference between him and his critics elsewhere in Europe is they are liberal democrats and he is a Christian democrat. His idea of democracy rests not on equality but the representation of the people in government and the assumption that the people can be equated with the cultural and religious majority. He wants to claim the heritage of Christianity and he is unashamed in repudiating the ideals of liberalism that he presents as unable to accommodate the realities of human experience around faith, tradition and family.

However much Orbán’s speeches on the subject of democracy are self-serving, including of his own material interests, they also pose awkward political questions for the future of democracies. In this case, the question of where liberal democracy constituted by a set of values can sit in relation to the traditions of Christianity in Europe is far from clear. If liberalism and democracy must indeed go together, then democracy and Christianity can certainly become uneasy bedfellows, as evidenced in the historical clash in Europe between liberalism and the Roman Catholic church (even as in a number of ways liberalism was parasitic on ideas within Christianity about the dignity of the individual).

Yet the clash is far from inevitable. The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote one of the most powerful statements that democracy was ultimately a value claim about the equality of citizens, was a Catholic who believed that democracy was the working of Providence and that to try to halt it was a futile endeavour to fight God.

After the Second World War, the Christian Democrats, who became the primary party of the centre-right in a number of  countries where Catholicism was historically strong, reconciled Christianity to democracy by stressing the importance of both the individual and European historical communities and the ability of the state to protect both. Indeed, this is the political lineage that Orbán, although Protestant, in part wants to claim. It is also one of the reasons why Fidesz has been able to maintain its presence in the European People’s Party, which was formed largely by Christian Democratic parties in the 1970s, despite Orbán’s violations of liberal values.

The second story that has emerged about the vulnerability of democracy in Europe is primarily about the way in which the European Union, and the Eurozone in particular, negates representative democracy as a form of government because of an unresponsiveness to elections.

In part, this is a matter of who takes authoritative decisions about economic policy. In recent years, the European Central Bank (ECB) has not only decided monetary policy, it has also decided which states’ debt to support with asset purchases under first the Securities and Market Programme and then Quantitative Easing.

The ECB’s unwillingness, in the autumn of 2011, to continue buying Italian bonds after the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, reneged on delivering the legislation that the outgoing and ingoing ECB Presidents, Jean-Claude Trichet and Mario Draghi, had ordered him to pass, led to the end of Berlusconi’s premiership and the appointment of a technocratic cabinet. Less dramatically, but no less significantly in terms of democratic politics, Trichet and Draghi also gave a deadline to a lame-duck Spanish government to pass legislation for which it had already failed to win parliamentary support.

In a state like Italy, which depends on the ECB to support its borrowing in financial markets, having elected politicians in leading positions in the executive has become a risk. Italy has not had an elected finance minister since the demise of the Berlusconi government and now, even with a government formed by a coalition of the two insurgent parties, the Five-Star movement and Lega, it has a law professor as Prime Minister.

Whether the Italian government can prevail over the Commission in the stand-off over the size of Italy’s planned budget deficit will depend as much as anything else on how the financial markets assess the willingness of the ECB to find ways to support Italy’s debt when it ends QE purchases from December.

The democratic problem that arises from the Euro is compounded by the place of treaties in the political order of the EU. The treaties work as the constitution of the EU but they contain more than a set of constitutional rules about how power is to be distributed and decisions taken. They stipulate rules about substantive matters from the macro-economic commitments that Eurozone states must uphold to border controls and access to labour markets within the EU.

These were issues that once could be contested within democratic politics and now cannot be. The constitutional rules around them are also extraordinarily difficult to change, given that every member state has to consent to a treaty revision. From the time of Maastricht, treaty ratification became increasingly subject to a national referendum in a number of member-states, reflecting a recognition that significant constitutional change risks being disruptive without clear democratic legitimation. But, paradoxically, the growing use of referendums on these treaties only ultimately served to make treaty change more difficult because governments failed on a number of occasions to win support for ratification.

The historical relationship between the political idea of nationhood and democracy in Europe runs through both of these pessimistic stories about the state of democracy. Representative democracies emerged in Europe around nation-states where the authority of the state was legitimated by the idea that it was the representative of the imaginative political community of the nation.

Under present political conditions, nationhood has become, however, a problem for democracy because to some observers¬†it appears to negate the value of equality in multi-cultural societies, even though there is no necessary reason why a political claim to shared nationhood cannot accommodate significant cultural differences. Yet, despite this attack on the language of nationhood, no political substitute for delineating the people who choose representatives in a democracy¬†has been established. Nor has there materialised a politically serviceable conception of a European people ‚Ästwho have never been¬†asked in any collective capacity to elect representatives.

Democracy is much more difficult in practice than is often supposed. If it is not to risk being tyrannical, then it needs to be checked by some liberalism either in its institutional configuration or its citizens’ values, even as liberalism is a contested and historically contingent set of commitments.

If it is not to be simply a rhetoric by which an elite, formed by technocratic accreditation or wealth, justify their power, then elections need to allow the possibility of some meaningful political change. And if it is going to exist at all, there needs to be sufficient commonality of political identity among citizens to accept that they should choose representatives collectively and can be on the losing side of elections without recourse to rebellion. The difficulty for democracy in Europe is there are reasons to worry that there are too many places, including the European Union itself, where at least one of these political conditions is not in evidence.

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and co-presenter of UnHerd’s These Times.


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Mark M
Mark M
3 years ago

1) Liberal democracy recognises of innate rights the denial of which makes a democracy both unjust and unstable. That’s fine, but who decides what those rights are? The majority or a self-appointed minority e.g. liberal human-rights lawyers?
2) The principle of elected representation makes the passage of laws less susceptible to wild swings of mood and passion. In the last free pre-WW2 elections in November 1932 the Nazis won 33% of the vote on an 80% turnout i.e. only 26% of the German electorate actually voted for Hitler. But he still took power and look what happened. So much for that argument
3) The principle of separation of powers makes it harder for a majority to subject a minority to its will. But, as we have seen in the US and the UK, packing the Supreme Court makes it easier for a minority to subject the majority to its will.

In some ways the term liberal democracy is a contradiction in terms.