There is a sense that democracy has reached a significant point in its development in Europe. The institutions of democracy are more widely accepted and practised across the continent than ever before. More Europeans live in democracies and more Europeans subscribe to the values of democracy in their day to day lives than ever before. At the same time, however, there is also a perception of democratic atrophy. Mistrust of political institutions, declining turnout in elections and the rise of terrorism as a major threat to democratic practices are all challenging the conventional wisdom of a comfortable political consensus around core institutions.
Developing democracy in Europe – an analytical summary of the Council of Europe’s acquis examines the Organisation’s activities to enhance democratic institutions, in particular through adopted texts and their support material. In summarising the Council’s acquis in the field of democracy, it provides both a stock take of what the Council thinks in this area and an analysis of the problems and opportunities that face European democracy.
Problems, challenges and opportunities
It is important to recognise the problems, challenges and opportunities that face European democracy, because it is these issues that provide the context in which the Council of Europe is seeking to make democratic institutions work.
Problems. The most apparent problem is the perception of an increasing democratic deficit in both established and newer democracies. Participation in formal political institutions continues to decline while the attention of the politically active is increasingly shifting towards issues that are beyond the control of nation-states and take place outside of the traditional institutions of collective politics. Faced with changing patterns of political engagement, the legitimacy of traditional institutions of democracy is called into question. This issue is compounded by a second problem: that of political mistrust. Although some scepticism is healthy for democracy, declining trust in both politics and political institutions is a threat in so far as it encourages even greater distance between citizens and governments. Even if such mistrust was not an issue, however, the extent to which various groups are systematically excluded from political life and effectively disenfranchised, represents a third problem for contemporary European democracy. Whether perceived or real, disenfranchisement is a problem for democracy because it strikes at one of its core principles, that of political equality. Finally, a fourth problem for democracy is the absence of effective civic infrastructures and the active participation of NGOs in political and democratic life in many countries. The organisations of civil society are widely acknowledged to be an important intermediary between citizens and the state in effective democracies. Their absence, therefore, is a fundamental problem for democracy which may inhibit the effective working of its institutions.
Challenges. The challenges to democracy come from outside of its institutional structures or procedures and revolve around broader socio-economic and political pressures. First, an awareness of globalisation frames the limitations of individual nation-states in responding to shifting economic and demographic patterns. While not a new phenomenon, globalisation is currently challenging for Europe because, for the first time, democracy is the dominant mode of political organisation across the continent, making responses to new challenges more complex than in previous eras. Second, the consolidation of various pan-European bodies adds to these challenges. In particular, the challenge is one of concomitant convergence around core beliefs, rules and institutions while, at the same time, seeking to protect and encourage local, national, regional and local differences and identities. As the only body to which all European democracies accede, the Council of Europe has an important role to play in balancing these challenges.
Opportunities. Europeanisation, of course, also represents one of the great opportunities for democracy across Europe. As well as achieving consensus on particular issues, the umbrella of the Council of Europe provides a strong institutional framework for co-operation, learning and policy transfer across Europe. This opportunity is particularly evident in relation to the adoption of new technologies to support or enhance democracy. The Council recognised this opportunity early on and has taken a number of steps to support the effective use of technologies.
The acquis is a complex base of knowledge that has emerged over time and through a sophisticated process of debate. However, its main points can be distilled into five core principles.
1. Parliamentary democracy – the Council remains committed to the formal structures of democracy that enforce a separation of powers and a range of means through which opinions can be formulated and articulated. The existence of elected assemblies, in the form of parliaments, remain fundamental to this institutional structure. Parliaments, in this vision, represent a microcosm of the full spectrum of socio-economic and political interests found in the wider community and act as the centre for political debate and deliberation. However, the relationship of parliaments with other attempts to involve citizens directly in the policy process, beyond voting in periodic elections, has not been fully thought through in the acquis.
2. Representation – for parliaments to realise this ambition it is necessary for them to be truly representative of the communities they serve. The Council has focused on three important issues that support this representative process. First, it has supported the principle of a plurality of political parties as forming the foundation of effective democratic politics. Concerns with party financing and the need to prevent corrupt funding of political parties by private interests is significant in this respect. Second, the Council has vigorously promoted good practice in electoral matters through both the definition of standards and the monitoring of procedures. As well as promoting generally high standards across the process, the Council has also focused on issues of disenfranchisement among ethnic minorities and has concentrated particularly upon promoting gender equality as a fundamental feature of democracy. Finally, the Council has also been active in supporting the development of new instruments to support representation.
3. Transparency, responsiveness and accountability – While there are a potentially wide range of issues that might be addressed in relation to transparency, responsiveness and accountability, the Council has concentrated its efforts in three main areas. First, it has sought to define and enforce the ethical standards that all public servants, whether paid functionaries or directly elected, should be expected to observe. Second, it has developed a range of instruments aimed at tackling corruption at all levels, from local government through to international crime and corruption. In seeking to codify the corrupt activities that should be criminalised, the Council has established an important benchmark for inhibiting anti-democratic corruption. Third, the Council has devoted much of its efforts to supporting a free and active media as one of the building blocks of democracy. Linked to this has been a concern with media pluralism as the best way to ensure freedom of expression. It is only by preserving and enhancing all three of these components that political institutions can be seen to be transparent, responsive and accountable.
4. Sub-national democracy and subsidiarity – the European Charter of Local Self-Government has defined the role of local government in a broader democratic polity. However, despite its widespread adoption among member states, the practice of local democracy remains heavily circumscribed in many countries. In particular, the principle of subsidiarity, which requires that decisions be taken at the level closest to the citizen, has not always been observed. The problem is a complex one, not least because no two member states have the same institutional structures at national or sub-national level. However, the principle remains important to democracy and fundamental to the Council’s vision for European democracy.
5. Participation and civic society – the Council, through many of its adopted texts and activities, promotes the principles of participation and civic society. Participation is focused especially around encouraging the engagement of otherwise marginalised groups: young people, ethnic minorities, immigrants and so on. The need for balanced gender representation has also featured prominently in this area. Support for civic society has focused more upon how NGOs can receive official recognition for their contribution to democracy and gain some degree of political legitimacy. However, the relationship between this principle and those more specifically concerned with the institutions of representative democracy, remains underdeveloped.
The development of these principles must also be acknowledged. Given that democracy is an intemporal and incomplete project, it is necessary to acknowledge that the democratic principles that the Council articulates have emerged through an incremental and responsive process, rather than a coherent and stable activity of deliberation. The articulation of particular principles has occurred in response to particular problems or events. The decline in electoral turnout and the perception of a democratic deficit is one such problem. The transition to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and the accession of a number of states with very different social and political histories is one such event which has significantly altered the path of democratic development. It is not surprising, therefore, to observe that the principles highlighted above are not always mutually consistent and give rise to a number of tensions in the democratic project of the Council. In different contexts these principles often compete with each other in shaping institutional developments. Nevertheless, they underpin much of the work that the Council undertakes in the area of democratic institutions and, as such, provide a base from which to understand the democratic trajectory of Europe.
Making democratic institutions work
From an analytical standpoint, the term “institution” refers to the rules of the game which politics observes in a particular context. Rules may be formal (constitutions, directives or organisational structures) or informal norms and conventions, which may vary from country to country. Rules are more codified, and the latter are unwritten codes and customs. Political institutions determine how the vast range of political actors behave. Institutions, or the rules of the game cannot be said to determine outcome, but they do provide a framework for political action and strategies. They provide a set of specific constraints and opportunities for the practice of democracy.
The Council is implicitly involved in designing democratic institutions and explicitly involved in seeking to make them work. Effective institutional development requires designs that are both revisable and robust. The Council already recognises these requirements: its formal treaties give scope for variation in the way different member states develop democracy. Its adopted texts seek to reinforce principles while, at the same time, allowing a degree of reflection upon various issues. Monitoring of democratic developments adds to both the revisability and robustness of various national and local institutions. However, there is also a danger that, in its desire to respond to contemporary problems, rise to specific democratic challenges and grasp potential opportunities, the Council may ignore both the forces of institutional inertia and the need for sensitive institutional design.
In seeking to make democratic institutions work more effectively, the Council needs first to establish the values that it is seeking to articulate through particular institutional forms. The principles set out above begin that process by clarifying the different principles that are embedded in the acquis and by highlighting the possible tensions that exist within and across them. It is only by surfacing these values that the current rules of the game can be clarified and the embedded positions of different actors understood. Second, in making recommendations for institutional reform, the Council must remain sensitive to the complexities of democracy in different member states, the power relationships that are embedded in particular institutional forms and the influence of history in shaping existing institutional structures. There is little value in making recommendations or establishing commitments to institutional practices that do not reflect these issues and allow institutional variation accordingly. Third, the Council should not approach institutional design from the perspective of a perfect or “ideal-type” model, but should seek to realise its democratic values and ambitions through a combination of different institutional forms that can be adapted to suit different political and cultural circumstances.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of the Council of Europe to the development of democracy across its members states lies in its role as a third party enforcer. Because it is not part of the “institutionalised interaction”, it is able to offer reforms that reflect an awareness of competing power relationships but which are not part of them. Through both its powers of initiation of institutional reform (treaties, recommendations and so forth) and its monitoring and support activities, the different organs of the Council are able to encourage and enforce institutions that are both robust and revisable. They can be robust in so far as they can reflect the core values of European democracy and articulate a consensus across the continent. They can also be revisable in so far as they can be flexible, allowing learning across countries and institutions, and allow for variation in institutional form and practice. Finally, the Council is in a unique position to make the institutions of democracy extendable to other tiers and policy areas. It is only by consciously focusing upon institutional design procedures that the Council can continue to have an impact upon the institutional development of democracy in Europe.