Council of Europe
Perspectives 2020: Democracy in Europe - Principles and challenges
Rapporteur’s summary and recommendations on
by Pavol DEMES
Working Sessions 2A on ‘Democracy and Representation’ and 2B on ‘Democracy and Global Governance’ looked at broader issues of representation and governance as they relate to democracy within the Council of Europe territory and beyond. The topics were introduced by the respective authors of the background policy papers and these provided the conceptual framework for individual sessions.
This report combines discussions and outcomes from both sessions and aims to capture the key points raised by the panelists and participants as well as highlight the session’s main recommendations and suggestions for future work of the Council of Europe.
Key findings from working sessions 2A and 2B
Changes in the democratic landscape – we are all in the same boat
One of the striking features of the discussions was the feeling that democracy is under threat not only in transitional and less developed countries, but also in the more affluent western societies. There is no longer a clear-cut divide between East and West, rather the challenges to democracies are originating in the global economic, political and security turbulences around the world. We are all in the same boat and need to learn from one another and cooperate more closely and strategically.
Although there are still striking differences between East and West with respect to their experience of democracy, the West can no longer adopt a patronising attitude towards the East. In the West there is a sense of democracies going through serious internal stress from global competition in a multi-polar world. In the East, there is a sense that some of the promises and hopes of 1989 - such as empowerment of the people - have not really been fulfilled. The indications from eastern Europe show that there are relatively few bottom-up democratic practices taking place; civil society is still very much in its infancy.
Democratic representation in a new era
The old pattern of representation - with elected representatives left to get on with the job - is changing in a world which is globalised and technology-driven. Finding ways for representative democracy to accommodate broader participation and people’s wish for direct involvement - through NGOs, internet and social media - has emerged as an acute contemporary problem.
In some countries, a significant number of people are elected not for reasons of their competence, but rather because of their wealth and political influence.
Solutions to some of these deficits may be found at local level as suggested by a recent survey which indicates that often people have more confidence in their local government than in their national government. Many consultative organs exist at local and regional level, thereby offering opportunities for meaningful participation by civil society. The necessary know-how exists, it now needs to be better used.
Citizens are taking more and more initiatives between elections, indeed civil society has brought some important ideas onto the political agenda, for example gay rights and the rights of Roma. It was noted that the protection of Roma, the largest minority in Europe, poses a serious challenge and that European solutions rather than national ones need to be found.
Ultimately, the role of civil society is to create a constituency for wise public policy and good governance. There is a need for capacity building, hence the importance of initiatives such as the Council of Europe's Schools of Political Studies.
Additional paths to explore include strengthening independent regulatory bodies, for example those created to protect access to information as well as such as Ombudsmen and anti-corruption agencies.
The limits to participatory democracy
There are many new participatory mechanisms underway. Once implemented, these instruments can offer stable forms of participation; but care should be taken to ensure that they do not weaken the position of elected representatives and political parties.
Indeed, it is clear that unlimited participatory democracy would lead to demands that go far beyond what is politically and democratically acceptable, as highlighted by the recent referendum in Switzerland calling for the banning of minarets or, more generally, recurrent populist requests for the death penalty.
Another example can be seen in the case of massive citizen action against a proposed railway station development in Stuttgart, Germany. Although the project was developed over 15 years and extensive public consultations were held, many citizens are now saying that they did not feel sufficiently involved. The authorities have to find a response to these protests and a new form of mediation has been introduced under the leadership of a popular former politician.
A limitation of direct democracy is that it does not contribute much to the formation of political parties (and other political entities). However, political representation will not command the respect of the public if their policies are not accompanied by a high degree of transparency.
Education to strengthen democracy
Education must play a key role in developing the values that will make our societies politically, economically, socially and culturally sustainable. Public responsibility means ensuring that quality education is provided to all its members, even the most vulnerable groups.
Education systems, policies and practices should offer learners the competences and skills they need to deal with complexity and to develop citizenship and intercultural skills. Interactive, learner-centred approaches in a lifelong learning perspective are called for. This requires changes to curricula, teaching methods, teacher education and the governance of educational institutions.
Civic education, formal and informal, offers an important tool for enhancing democracy. The culture of dialogue needs to be strengthened, particularly given that our societies are rapidly becoming multicultural. Teaching methods and curricula in educating responsible citizens are lagging behind and new educational approaches and methods, which make use of modern communication tools, should be developed.
Youth participation in public life throughout Europe is declining. There is a need to find ways to convince young people that it is worth their while to vote. Although the young have always participated less in elections, what is changing is that the age at which they tend to engage is later.
We also need to take into account the (relatively new) idea of inter-generational justice – that we are holding our country, and indeed our planet, in trust for future generations.
Recommendations and pointers for the Council of Europe
· The Council of Europe should make the democracy agenda more prominent in its reform process, in spite of financial constraints. Its long-term experience in the field means that the Organisation is in a very good position to contribute to finding solutions to many pressing problems emerging throughout Europe and beyond;
· Building synergies and balance between multiple stakeholders will be a key challenge for the Council of Europe. Particular emphasis should be put on cooperation with the European Union which is seeking new ways to strengthen democracy within the EU and promote it in other parts of the world;
· The Council of Europe should examine way to co-operate with institutions of global governance with a view to furthering the values of the Council of Europe around the world;
· The Council of Europe should increase its relevance and visibility through more educational and dissemination work as well as through greater use of modern forms of communication. Streaming its meetings, conferences and forums would open up a new space for bigger audiences in Europe and beyond, thus contributing to serious debate and the search for solutions;
· More research data on democracy, such as its developmental trends and challenges, are needed to improve decision-making processes and to develop strategies to promote and strengthen democracy and civil society. Besides US-based organisations (e.g. Freedom House) providing a global picture, there are relatively few European organisations producing quality data in this field. The Stockholm-based IDEA and the Bertelsmann Foundation produce relevant data but they are not yet widely used;
· The Council of Europe should help foster more understanding of how democratic systems work and of the strengths and weaknesses of different democratic models;
· The Council of Europe could monitor and rank the conduct of political parties and produce a list. Furthermore, the Venice Commission’s opinions should be made public.