I am delighted to participate in the opening of this year’s Forum on behalf of the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Mr MevlŁt «avuşoğlu, who was prevented at the last minute from attending and asked me to speak on his behalf.
This year’s Forum sets itself an extremely ambitious, but necessary goal – to look into the future and try to anticipate what our democracies should look like in 10 years time.
Nothing would be more naÔve and erroneous at the moment of history that we are facing
The crossroads at which we are now, is a fascinating one, because it is fraught with challenges, but it also is probably the most complicated one, because of its multiple and global character.
Firstly, as a result of the deep economic and social crises of last years, we have come to realise that democracy needs to be reshaped and strengthened from within. Furthermore, the traditional representative democracy model has to be supplemented by new forms of civic participation.
Secondly, as a result of the globalisation and redistribution of power in the world, our European model of democracy increasingly has to confront itself with different political models from other parts of the world. It has to reassert itself in this new environment, without making concessions on the democratic acquis that it has granted to the people of Europe over the years.
And thirdly, for the first time in history, democracy as a fundamental human value has to confront itself with the forces of nature which, with its huge resources but also its fragility, has become part of the global democracy and human rights equation.
Of course, we all know that democracy is never perfect, that we constantly have to reshape it and adapt it to the new realities. I am tempted to repeat the famous quote of Churchill that “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. So what makes it necessary to be revisiting our traditional understanding of democracy at this particular moment?
I would then add a number of specific weaknesses that have resulted from the governance that we have been applying to domestic and international affairs in the last decades. These shortcomings were very well identified by the Parliamentary Assembly in the latest of its traditional bi-ennial debates on the state of democracy in Europe held last June.
Without the list being exhaustive, I would mention:
Let me be clear: although the Assembly feels that democracy is in a crisis, representative democracy as such must not be put into question. However, we believe that representation can no longer be the only expression of democracy. We need to find more sustained forms of interaction between people and the authorities and these forms should include direct democratic elements in the decision-making process.
One such way would be by enhancing participatory democracy. It should be a process in which all people, and not only nationals, are involved in the conduct of public affairs, at local, regional, national and European levels. Democracy should be understood as a form of society which implies discussing and living together in dignity, respect and solidarity.
The renewal of politics also requires the development of a new culture of civic and political responsibility. This means greater responsiveness and accountability, as well as transparency, on the part of those who govern, and on the part of civil society actors who participate in the political debate.
How can all these ideas be put into practice?
In the first place, we believe that the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs should be considered as a human right and a fundamental political freedom. Therefore, in close consultation with the European Commission for Democracy through Law /Venice Commission, we have started reflecting upon the elaboration of an Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. The drafting process of the new protocol should be accompanied by open public debates, so that this process in itself offers an opportunity to raise awareness on the need to increase citizens’ active participation.
I am now moving to the second set of challenges to our European democracies, those posed by globalisation.
The world economic and financial crisis is a perfect illustration of this point. Since the beginning of the crisis, the Assembly hinted that it could possibly threaten to undermine the very foundations of democracy and reminded governments that despite financial difficulties, citizen’s social, economic and human rights must be safeguarded.
Another worrying trend across the world which presents a direct challenge to democracy is the upsurge of racism, xenophobia and all sorts of manifestations of intolerance against people of different religious beliefs. All these are a fact of everyday life in our societies. These manifestations can be flagrant or subtle, but the result is the same: discrimination, social alienation and exclusion, tension between communities and fomentation of political extremism.
Amongst these forms of extremism, as the Assembly has pointed out, racism and xenophobia anti-Semitism and Islamophobia represent a major source of preoccupation, also in the light of the rise in the electoral support of parties inspired by racist ideas and the increasing temptation for mainstream political parties or public figures to coin racist discourse as a means of attracting votes
There are no universal recipes for fighting against extremism, but our first and foremost task is to address its root causes. Resolute action against discrimination, emphasis on civic education and inter-cultural as well as inter-religious dialogue, involvement of civil society and non-governmental organisations – especially those representing segments of society which are excluded de jure or de facto from ordinary channels – in consultation or decision-making processes are key instruments to reduce the potential attraction of extremist groups and movements.
I am now coming to the last, but not least challenge, certainly the newest and also the most difficult to tackle: the challenge of the planet on which we are living.
The challenges to today’s democracy are more than ever also of a geopolitical and geostrategic nature. The balance of power in the world is shifting and although it is difficult to design a precise scenario, we know that from now on we would be living in a multipolar world. The newly emerging powers in the world come with newly-asserted self-confidence that their political models work. Yet these political realities are not necessarily the same as ours and they do not necessarily share the values which underpin every democracy. .
Will democracy be able to resist this pressure? We used to believe that the others have to adhere to our principles simply because these principles are right and because they are universal. Sometimes, when they have been met with resentment or opposition, some nations have tried to introduce them even by force. Interventionism, even dressed in the best democratic intentions, has caused a lot of damage to our democratic model.
We also need to rethink our notion of common good. For the poor, it is about global resources that need to be shared evenly. For the rich, the notion of common good relates more to the idea of collective security and prosperity. Solutions that combine both interests at world level certainly exist. But for this to happen, we urgently need to make globalisation more human. Here is probably the biggest challenge to our democracies.
I am sure that this Forum will make an important contribution to the ongoing reflexion on our political priorities. I therefore wish you a stimulating and productive work. Finally, I wish to thank most warmly our Armenian hosts for their hospitality.