Liberal political democracy, as presently practiced in Europe, is not “the end of history”. Not only can it be improved, it must be – if it is to retain the legitimate respect of its citizens. It has done this several times in the past in response to emerging challenges and opportunities, and there is no reason to believe that it cannot do so in the present.
In this Green Paper, we have tried to use our collective imagination as theorists and practitioners of politics to come up with suggestions for reforms that could improve the quality of democracy in Europe and make it more legitimate in the future. Some of these have already been introduced – usually on an experimental basis – in a few polities; most, however, have never been tried. We would be the first to admit that not all of these reforms are equally urgent or feasible or even desirable. It is the task of democratic politicians to decide which are best and which deserve priority treatment.
We can, however, offer some concluding thoughts on those reforms that we are convinced should be considered most urgently. It is our collective judgement that the major generic problem of contemporary European democracy concerns declining citizen trust in political institutions and participation in democratic processes. Therefore, those reforms that promise to increase voter turnout, stimulate membership in political parties, associations and movements and improve citizen confidence in the role of politicians as representatives and legislators deserve prior consideration, especially in those cases where they also make politics more entertaining. The second most important problem concerns the increasing number of foreign residents and the political status of denizens in almost all European democracies. Measures to incorporate these non-citizens within the political process should also be given a high priority.
We believe that the following reforms could be introduced in most member states by ordinary legislation, are not likely to entail high budgetary costs and should produce immediate, if marginal, improvements in the quality of democracy:
These reforms would probably meet with greater political opposition both because they are more innovative and because they are more likely to affect prevailing balances of power between parties, organised interests and government agencies. Perhaps, for that reason, they are likely to have a greater long-run impact on the quality of democracy and the legitimacy of institutions, but they are also more subject to problems of “transversality” in that their indirect effects should be more substantial and, therefore, require corresponding adjustments via other reform measures.
Finally, we acknowledge that the proposals listed below are especially difficult to approve and to implement. They are unprecedented in substance, come with a higher price tag, and would probably require “super-majorities” or even constitutional revision to pass. This does not mean that they should be discarded – only that they require much more deliberation among politicians and preparation of the citizenry before being introduced.
We also wish to conclude by introducing a note of caution. Single reforms in the rules of the democratic game have rarely been efficacious “on their own”. It has been packages of interrelated reforms that have been most successful in improving performance and legitimacy. Sometimes this was the result of an explicit and rational calculation of the interdependencies involved; most often however it was the product of the political process itself with its inevitable need for legislative alliances, compromises among competing forces and side payments to recalcitrant groups. In other words, in “real-existing” democracies, the design of reform measures is almost always imperfect, all the more so when the intent is to change the future rules of competition and co-operation between political forces.
Moreover, reformers have usually not been successful in predicting all of the consequences of the measures they have introduced. Almost always, these changes have generated unintended consequences – some good, some not so good. One should never forget that in a free society and democratic polity the individuals and organisations affected by political innovations will react to them and quite often in unpredictable ways. Most significantly, they will try to “game them”, that is to exploit them in ways that benefit them in particular and, not infrequently, distort their intent in order to protect established interests.
All of this pleads for caution – especially, when introducing reforms that are genuinely innovative. Ideally, such measures should initially be treated as political experiments and conducted in specially selected sites – normally, at the local or regional level. Only after their effects have been systematically monitored and evaluated, hopefully by an impartial and multinational agency such as the Council of Europe, should they be transposed to other levels within the same polity or to other member states.
We repeat: our democracies in Europe can be reformed. They can be made to conform more closely to that “word that has never existed” and, in so doing, they can regain the trust in institutions and the legitimacy in processes that they seem to have lost over recent decades. But it will not be easy and it will take the collective wisdom of political theorists and practitioners in all of the forty-five member states of the Council of Europe to identify which reforms seem to be the most desirable, to evaluate what their consequences have been and, finally, to share the lessons from these experiences among each other. With this Green Paper to the Council of Europe, we hope that we have made a contribution to initiating this process.