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The European Commission’s new president should act decisively to make deliberations in Brussels more accountable to voters and national parliaments.
This publication is part of the Reshaping European Democracy project, an initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and European Movement International.
In recent years some European states have suffered dramatic regression, while others have experienced more subtle forms of democratic erosion. Several EU governments have constricted civic liberties. There has been lively debate about how much European citizens are losing faith in core democratic values. In general, the demand for democratic participation is outstripping its supply at both the national and EU levels.1
In response to this challenge, new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called for a “new push for European democracy.” She has suggested organizing a Conference on the Future of Europe in which European citizens will “play a leading and active part.” She has promised to formulate a new European Democracy Action Plan focused in particular on the digital sphere.2 The new commission’s promise opens new opportunities for democratic innovation and experimentation. European leaders frequently commit to defending and deepening democracy, but they rarely follow through amid more urgent crises. EU and national authorities seem to recognize the importance of this endeavor, yet improving democracy often appears to be a more abstract and lower-priority goal than fixing the euro, agreeing on migrant quotas, or negotiating the budget.
One of the worst things the EU’s new leaders could do would be to launch grandiloquent initiatives that fail to deliver meaningful and tangible change. Raising citizens’ expectations only to dash them would leave trust and faith in democratic norms even lower than before. It is questionable whether a high-level conference on the future of Europe is really the most effective way to redress Europe’s democratic malaise. Debates about the future of Europe and the “push for European democracy” could become too entangled with each other. The two issues are related to each other but not the same thing. A drawn out conversation about the wholesale reinvention of the EU could simply delay and divert attention from the need for concrete, targeted democratic reform.
It is important for the EU institutions and member state governments to get reform right at this decisive juncture. A European democratic reform agenda must be broad and multifaceted, with reforms not just at the EU level but at the national and subnational levels too. EU bureaucrats and member state government officials must pursue these various levels and types of democratic innovation simultaneously and work in tandem with each other.
There are at least six constructive, practical ways that European leaders can begin bolstering European democracy. These ideas aim to help EU institutions connect downward and use reforms to facilitate parallel national and subnational democratic improvements. Rather than replaying the most exhaustively covered subjects of debate—such as punitive rule of law measures against Hungary and Poland, the diverse roots of populism, or the regulation of tech companies—this paper explores less-covered but eminently feasible areas of potential progress. Democratic reform does not start from a blank canvas. Many options have been on the agenda for several years, showing that there is some positive momentum the EU can harness.
The paper’s six ideas are:
- Craft a compelling democratic narrative against the rise in illiberal values.
- Establish a more democratic way to elect European leaders.
- Foster a more transnational form of European party politics.
- Improve direct citizen consultations and democratic participation.
- Embrace a more positive approach to digital democracy that not only manages the risks of new technologies but also harnesses their potential.
- Strengthen public participation through a revamped European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI).
There will be no silver bullet to rescue or transform European democracy. Rather than attempt to address every dimension of democracy across Europe, it makes sense to select a number of concrete policy ideas that could help improve European democracy in specific ways. None of these measures would be a wholesale lifesaver for democracy, but together this modest, incremental progress would begin to make an appreciable difference to the quality of the democratic process across Europe.
Authors: Richard Youngs, Stephen Boucher, Israel Bulter, Maarten De Groot, Elisa Lironi, Sophia Russack, Corina Stratulat, Anthony Zacharzewski