Council of Europe
Forum for the Future of Democracy, 2010
Perspectives 2020: Democracy in Europe - Principles and challenges
Rapporteur’s summary and recommendations on
Working Session 3 ‘Live Democracy’
by Helen Darbishire
Executive Director, Access Info Europe
Working Session 3A on ‘Sustainable Communities for a Living Democracy’ and 3B on ‘Democratic Political Culture: Democracy’s Oxygen’ both discussed “Live Democracy” by considering the current threats to, and opportunities for, democracy in the Council of Europe region.
This summary of the discussions first reviews the threats and then looks at the solutions proposed by panellists and members of the audience. It ends by suggesting how the Council of Europe can rise to meet the challenges and bring its unique standing as the leading human rights institution in the region to bear in new and innovative ways, thereby contributing to the construction of a 21st century model of democracy.
Identifying the threats to democracy
During the two working sessions, the identified threats to democratic and open societies included the financial crisis, climate change and corruption as well as security threats, including the threat of terrorism.
With all of these threats, there is a risk of short term, autocratic solutions being imposed top-down from the national or supranational level. The urgent need to respond to these challenges may result in political actions which address the symptoms rather than the causes of the problems, and which at the same time threaten to curb key democratic rights such as freedom of assembly, expression, movement and privacy.
Exclusion of the public from decision-making processes which are not transparent and are unaccountable can produce radicalisation – this is true whether talking about global responses to the financial crisis or local failures to respond to extreme weather events such as fires or floods.
If the challenges of our time are not adequately addressed and people feel they are living in conditions of instability and insecurity, then populist or anti-democratic political leaders offering simplistic solutions will step into the breach (an extreme example of this, cited by one of the speakers, was that Osama bin Laden is alleged to be advocating for fighting against climate change).
The threat posed by populist politicians with agendas that do not uphold human rights is now present in even the more established democracies of the Council of Europe region. An example is the effects of the financial crisis and the rising acceptance of intolerant attitudes towards, and treatment of, immigrants that is accompanying it.
A particular threat in the Council of Europe region is that many states are still young or emerging democracies and are struggling with widespread corruption. Speakers noted that the evidence suggests that corruption is almost inevitable in the move from authoritarian to democratic systems, accompanied as they are by rapid transfers of wealth and the opportunities created by shifts in power structures. Corruption is both a symptom and a cause of bad governance, and it brings with it the risk of backsliding to authoritarianism, particularly where there has not been time to consolidate democratic culture.
All the above challenges to democracy are on the rise in a context where many, or even most, countries experience a gap between good legislation and actual practice. It has taken time to construct the legal frameworks of the new democracies, and there is still work to be done to ensure that proper implementation leads to states with genuine rule of law.
There is also concern that the political elites are not yet representative in many countries. The reasons for this vary, including the nature of the party and electoral structures, as well as the short-sightedness inherent in political systems linked to typical election cycles which only encourage planning within a four- or five-year timeframe. Another concern expressed was that access to education in many countries limits those in a position to enter public life, and that this in turn can result in elites which are particularly susceptible to lobbying by powerful interests.
Even where there is political will to find appropriate solutions, sometimes centralised approaches do not work. For example, the nature of the climate change problem is such that it requires behavioural change at many levels of society rather than a simple top-down approach. All actors in society need to be mobilised to achieve these behavioural changes.
Last but not least among the challenges is that new communications technologies mean that the public is better informed than ever about what is happening in the world and better able to keep track of the behaviour of their leaders. Increasingly, concerned, informed, and empowered citizens are demanding the right to engage in decision-making processes. Denying the public participation the right to participate in the global debate can have negative consequences: the pre-emptive arrests of demonstrators during the Copenhagen Climate Summit (subsequently ruled illegal by a Danish court) is indicative of the breaches of trust that can open up between elites and the broader public if new ways of engaging citizens are not implemented immediately.
During the Working Sessions, the assertion that in a representative democracy civil society does not benefit from the requisite legitimacy to engage in the debates about how societies should be run, but that the decisions should be left to elected representatives, was robustly contested. There was a broad consensus that a modern democratic model includes public participation and to suggest otherwise risks alienating those segments of society which may be able to contribute the very ideas and solutions which hold the threats to democracy at bay.
New models for live democracy
In spite of the apparent enormity of these challenges and threats to Europe’s fragile democratic order, the majority of the panellists retained high levels of optimism that there are many solutions to hand.
Many of the panellists noted that, on the positive side, these threats create opportunities because they motivate people to find new ways to engage; voter turnout may be down but there is a rise in use of the internet to organise. Local, informal citizen associations are increasingly engaging in debate about national and global issues. In the financial crisis, civil society is not always well-funded, but grass-roots activity is vibrant across Europe, countering the allegations of apathy that is often levelled at the general public.
Examples of how this works in practice included the organisation of a countrywide rubbish collection campaign in Estonia coordinated via a website (myEstonia) which resulted in 15,000 people taking part in a one-day action to collect rubbish around the country. This in turn led to constructive discussions about the future of the country. Similarly a well organised referendum with pre-awareness campaigns resulted in a positive outcome and broad public ownership of proposals to pedestrianise the city centre in Stockholm, Sweden. Other examples of engagement include Facebook groups challenging corrupt local officials to be transparent.
Many of the examples cited offer more local solutions, which tend to be better suited to direct engagement. It was noted, however, that participation initiatives need to be tailored to the scale and nature of the issue. Regulating the skies may not be the most appropriate issue for ongoing participation in decision-making, although of course there could be participation in developing the broad policy framework.
In this vein, it was suggested that an appropriate equilibrium needs to be found between the nature of the issue and how decentralised the decision-making should be. If a problem, such as treatment of a minority group, affects a particular local community, it might be that it is best addressed within that community.
Other examples showed that local engagement can function at a transnational level. For example, the Federated States of Micronesia, an island group in the North Pacific Ocean, managed to influence the development of a coal-fired power station in the Czech Republic arguing that climate change threatened its existence. This case also illustrates how centralised dialogue through traditional international forums such as the United Nations may not offer the best structure to facilitate this kind of interaction.
Hence the emergence of the concept of the “distributed dialogue” which engages local entities – such as sports and social clubs – in debate on global issues such as climate change. It was noted that initiatives such as the construction of alternative energy sources at the local level is an effective way of empowering local communities both politically and financially.
For such approaches to be successful, local and regional elected representatives need to be open to incorporating public input into their decision-making processes. This does not mean replacing existing institutions, but rather expanding them to accommodate public engagement. If managed well – and there is undoubtedly a significant public administration challenge here – the result could be a bolstering of existing democratic structures with national and regional political systems which better respect and uphold the rights of all members of society. These changes would affect democratic institutions at the local, national, and global levels.
There was a broad consensus that a 21st century definition of democracy includes both representative and participatory democracy, probably with some measure of direct democracy. It was also stressed that new ways of engaging do not per se negate the role of traditional political parties. The demand for change does however reflect public disillusion with political elites and means that there is a lot of pressure to find a response which addresses this disillusion. There is a need to improve the systems of checks and balances and greater accountability inevitably means shifts in who holds power. Both standard-setting and coherent proposals are needed for how such change can be structured and managed, including by standard-setting.
This is therefore an appropriate moment for the Council of Europe to respond and to take a leadership role. This should be done in ways that are tailored to the nature of current challenges and opportunities. This implies an approach different from the role the Council of Europe played in the democratic transitions of the 1990s, or its role before 1989, and it has to adapt to this if it is to be a relevant player in the future of democracy.
Pulling together the different strands emerging from the rich and constructive discussions which took place in the Working Sessions, it is possible to identify a number of proposals or recommendations that the Council of Europe could implement. As much as proposals about what the Council of Europe should do, they are proposals about what Europe’s human rights and democracy body should be during the coming period.
Recommendations for the Council of Europe
The Council of Europe should:
1. Be consistent: The Council of Europe has a well-developed body of standards, many of which promote enhanced democratic processes but are not yet fully implemented in all member states. Some of these standards are implemented in the new democracies in ways that are more innovative and inclusive than in Europe’s older democracies. To address disillusion with the democratic process, it is essential to take steps to iron out any double-standards. The Council of Europe should continue to promote these standards and to monitor compliance equally across all member states.
2. Be firm: The Council of Europe is an Intergovernmental Organisation but it has power, and even if this is only “soft” power, it has a lot of it – and this is the era of soft power! The Council of Europe should continue to ensure that it does not refrain from using the influence that it has when engaging in debates about human rights and democracy around Europe. It should ensure that its voice is heard, loudly and clearly.
3. Be informed: An increased investment in gathering data from a wider variety of sources, including those which lie outside the traditional monitoring mechanisms, should be a priority. An example given was gathering the data necessary to measure compliance with the Code of Good Practice in the field of Political Parties. Being informed also means disseminating more information more widely in order to “crowd source” data collection from the public about the state of democracy and how the Council of Europe standards are being implemented in its member states.
4. Be nuanced: Complex challenges require sophisticated and multifaceted solutions. The Council of Europe can set up processes to achieve this. The Council of Europe has its own multi-faceted structure that includes a range of intergovernmental committees, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Venice Commission. As such, it is well placed to engage a wide range of actors in debating and developing complex solutions.
5. Be open: The Council of Europe needs to open up to a wider range of actors, including the new civil structures described in this report, such as those where citizens are organising via the internet around particular issues. The current accreditation processes for civil society groups to participate in discussions in Strasbourg are limited and out of date; they result in a narrow elite of well-established NGOs having a disproportionate voice. There is an urgent need to establish modern mechanisms for public participation, such as consultations which do not require travel to Strasbourg and which harness communication technologies to best advantage. The existing comprehensive website could be enhanced by making it more interactive and using it to launch a number of public consultations. Such reforms will need to be widely promoted across Europe to ensure that civil society, including at the grass roots level, is informed of the opportunities for participation.
6. Be a model: The Council of Europe itself should be a model of internal democracy, transparency and accountability. There are a number of steps that can be taken in this direction. For example, the Council of Europe should adopt the same access to information rules (as reflected in the 2009 Convention on Access to Official Documents) that it promotes in its member states. Similarly, the decision-making processes of the Council of Europe need to be responsive to input from parliamentarians (as represented through the PACE) and civil society: when legitimate concerns are raised about the measures that are being taken or the standards that are being proposed, these concerns should trigger additional considerations and debate around the standards. Greater openness and the readiness to be accountable to a wider European public will help generate the political will to make this possible.
7. Be a forum for ongoing transversal dialogue, exchange of best practices, and agenda setting. Being a forum for the future of democracy is about far more than just organising events. It is about becoming a centre of excellence for the horizontal exchange of views, elaboration of indicators, sharing of good practices, and genuine participatory debate. In this way the Council of Europe can take a leadership role in defining the democratic solutions to 21st Century challenges.