17-19 November 2004
Integrated project “Making democratic institutions work”
Marking the end of the Council’s integrated project on “Making democratic institutions work”, the Barcelona Conference debated the challenges and opportunities facing democracy. Two key outputs from the integrated project received particular attention: Developing democracy in Europe, which is an analytical summary of the Council’s acquis in the field of democracy; and The future of democracy in Europe (the Green Paper), which discusses trends and proposes reforms.1 The main arguments of these documents were set out in keynote addresses by Dr Lawrence Pratchett and Professor Philippe Schmitter respectively.
The conference agreed that the acquis constitutes a firm basis for future developments. The documents and instruments of the Council establish and elaborate the core principles of European democracy, which include representation, participation, accountability and subsidiarity. They also reveal internal tensions within the democratic project, such as the relationship between representative and participatory democracy and external challenges, such as globalisation.
Workshops were convened to discuss the twenty-eight democratic reform proposals in the Green Paper. Proposals were grouped in relation to three themes: democratic institutions and political parties; citizenship and participation; and elections and mechanisms of deliberation. Members of the high level group which produced the paper explained the reforms to participants, who debated prospects for their practical application within different member states, and at different levels of governance. (For reports from the workshop rapporteurs, see the Appendix.) Additional plenary sessions focused on e-governance and e-democracy, including remote voting by electronic and other means.
Taking an over-arching approach, this report summarises the key areas of debate and the main points of agreement to emerge at the conference. These points are elaborated in the formal statement of conclusions from the conference Chair. Matters of detail regarding specific democratic trends and reforms are dealt with in the publications referred to above.
The conference discussed the current dilemmas faced by democratic systems and processes in Europe. These are common tensions, experienced, albeit in different ways, in established democracies and the newer democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. The dilemmas can be summarised thus:
· Democracy triumphs… Democracy withers…
More Europeans than ever before live in democratic systems and subscribe to democratic values. At the same time there is a sense that democracy has lost its vibrancy as a political system and is lacking in its capacity to mobilise citizens and hold representatives to account.
· Popular control… Citizen disengagement…
Such a loss of vibrancy is best illustrated by declining electoral turnouts across Europe, even within newly established democracies. Democracy promises popular control and yet citizens appear increasingly disengaged – less trustful of political institutions, less willing to join political parties and less keen to stand for public office.
· Political equality… Political exclusion…
Democracy aspires not just to popular control but also to political equality. Yet there is evidence that foreigners, minorities, women and young people all experience exclusion from democratic systems – whether through overt or more subtle means.
· Institutional dynamism… Institutional inertia…
Institutional variety flourishes across Europe, with different democratic systems shaped by unique historical, geographical and socio-economic contexts. At the same time there is evidence of a deep institutional conservatism that militates against far-reaching reforms and works to consolidate vested interests.
Voices from the conference
In addressing the challenges that confront democracy in Europe, a major strength of the integrated project was its transversal and multi-disciplinary way of working. The integrated project brought together parliamentarians, civil servants, expert academics, and representatives from local and regional government and civil society. The Barcelona Conference mirrored this approach, with the debate reflecting many different voices – from different stakeholders, operating at different levels of governance, within different member states.
In what follows, we illustrate the richness of that conversation by using quotations from participants to establish and reflect upon key themes:
· “Debate is the true essence of democracy”
In this statement, the Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, emphasised the importance of debate to any democratic reform process. As Professor Schmitter pointed out in his keynote address, democracy is about more than “counting noses”. Numerical means of aggregating preferences (through elections and referendums) are important, but democratic reforms should also take account of the potential of negotiative and deliberative devices. Negotiative processes bring together citizens with different preferences (or more usually their representatives) to arrive at a binding collective decision by consensus. But it is through deliberative processes that preferences themselves are modified and shared solutions arrived at. Enabling debate both within and about democratic practice is therefore fundamental to the process of democratic reform.
· “Democracy is not a static concept; its practical application depends upon local factors”
` Here Ambassador Estanislao de Grandes Pascual (Permanent Representative of Spain to the Council of Europe) underlined the different trajectories taken by democratic systems within Europe. It was observed many times during the conference that democracy is not an end-state but an objective: democracy is always incomplete and always changing. Democratic principles and practices must be continually re-created and re-enacted if they are to be adapted to changing political, social and economic contexts. For the Council of Europe, the challenge is to guide processes of democratic reform so that it builds upon fundamental values (as expressed in the acquis) while also expressing the diverse traditions and aspirations of forty-six member states.
· “Democracy will encounter resistance”
In this observation, the Deputy Secretary General emphasised that democratic reform will always be contested, challenging as it does vested interests in the name of extending popular control and political equality. The importance of building broad coalitions of support for democratic reform was emphasised by Annelise Oeschger, Chair of the Council’s INGO Conference. To the questions posed by Professor Schmitter in his keynote address – “Que faire? Où faire”, she added a third question – Avec qui faire? An inclusive approach to democratic reform is more likely to yield innovative solutions, build a sense of popular ownership, and engender smooth implementation.
· “New technologies contribute to building the connective tissue that is the base of democracy”
Here Professor Noveck highlights the potential role of new technologies in enhancing democratic relationships. Like other contributors to the round table on e-democracy, she was at pains to stress that new technology is not a quick fix for current democratic ills. New technologies have both positive and negative implications, depending upon their application. As Mr Di Stasi, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, noted in discussion: “The technical problems are less than the political ones: the people should want to take part”. The new technologies can enable democratic practice but they are not in themselves carriers of democratic values or relationships. There must be clarity about what it is we are seeking to achieve through the application of the new technologies. By looking anew at the technologies through which democratic practice takes place, it is possible to “surface” values that are usually hidden – and open these up to debate. E-voting in itself, for instance, will not solve problems of voter turnout; rather, it will reduce the transaction costs for those already motivated to take part, and who have access to appropriate facilities. More importantly, perhaps, experimentation with e-voting highlights the potential of “multi-channel” approaches (that use a repertoire of different voting methods to suit different citizens), while also stimulating fresh interest in “old” issues like secrecy and equality.
In contrast, the Cairns project presented by Professor Noveck puts the spotlight on how citizens are mobilised through issue-based group activity, and how such engagement can be supported through new technology. As Professor Trechsel, another keynote speaker, explained, the e-democracy debate is important in identifying and elaborating diverse “elements of reform”. It is not about prescribing “specific sequences” of technological or institutional development.
· “There is a vacuum waiting to be filled by a value-based approach”
Here Kimmo Aulake, Chairman of the Council of Europe’s Group of Specialists on E-Governance, emphasised the importance of a value-based approach to e-governance. In concluding the Round Table discussion, he argued that the importance of the new technologies lies in establishing “a new frontier where democracy and democratic practice are being re-created”. It is in this context that the Council’s new instruments on e-voting and e-governance should be interpreted. Traditionally associated with a value-based approach, the Council of Europe has an important role to play in exploring and extending what Mr Aulake referred to as “the democratic potential of the information society”.
· “We can’t change citizens but we can change the arenas in which they operate”
Taking his quotation from James Madison, Professor Schmitter reminded participants that we cannot simply exhort the people of Europe to be more democratic. Where citizens display a lack of interest or commitment to democracy, it is unlikely to stem from absent mindedness or apathy. Citizens’ behaviour and attitudes are shaped within complex political and socio-economic environments. But, while citizens will form their own preferences and decide upon their own courses of behaviour, it is possible to design democratic institutions in such a way as to give expression to specific values and incentivise particular actions. This is why innovative but pragmatic thinking about the practical organisation of democracy is so important. It is at this level that the Council of Europe can influence the environments within which citizens take their stance towards democracy.
Securing institutional change
The Council of Europe is not responsible for democracy in its member states but it can shape democratic practice. From its formal accession and monitoring regimes to its sponsoring and dissemination of good practice, the Council sets standards and recommends institutional routes whereby they might be achieved.
Discussion at the conference underlined the limits of what can be called “intentional institutional design”. There was scepticism among some participants about many of the more radical or unorthodox reforms proposed in the Green Paper. An early contributor described them as “science fiction”. The importance of national context was underlined as a key constraint, through objective factors such as the penetration of the Internet, or the density of civil society organisations, and also subjective elements, including local political cultures and traditional party relationships. The challenge to established power relationships was also viewed as an obstacle to democratic reform.
For the Council of Europe to be successful in securing democratic reform, these constraints need to be turned into resources. To take a phrase from the political scientist, Bob Goodin, the aim should be “designing schemes for designing institutions”, rather than the direct design of any particular blue-print. Democratic reform needs to be a partnership between the Council and its forty-six member states that establishes frameworks within which specific local resources can be put to work. As Mr Severin from the Parliamentary Assembly explained, the challenge is to “use local traditions and national raw materials in such a way as to make universal values more vibrant and not less substantial”.
Those reforms taken forward from the Green Paper need to meet the twin criteria of robustness and revisability:
· Robustness requires that the underlying values be clear and that effective mechanisms exist for the enforcement of new institutional arrangements. Enforcement can be achieved not just through the threat of sanctions but also through the appeal of persuasive discourses. It must be clear why reforms are necessary or desirable – and stakeholders need to be convinced of the case for change.
· Revisability requires that proposals for democratic reform be flexible – to allow for adaptation over time and “learning by doing”. The sequencing over time of different elements of democratic reform will vary from country to country. Too rigid an interpretation of the concept of “best practice” is dangerous, given the specificities of local contexts. Experimentation with different variants of a reform proposal is important not just to ensure compatibility with local or national environments, but also to ensure a capacity for innovation and learning within individual democracies and across the European democratic space.
In sum, it was the feeling of the conference that convergence should be sought in relation to underlying democratic values and effective systems of enforcement. At the same time, divergence should be welcomed – even encouraged – in relation to specific institutional forms and processes.
Priorities for action
There was agreement that the Council of Europe should establish some kind of agent for the promotion of democratic reform (see reform proposal No. 28 in the Green Paper). In the Chair’s conclusions this is referred to as a Forum for the Future of Democracy. This body would harness and take forward the momentum established at the Barcelona Conference. It would develop systematically the conceptual and practical resources generated through the integrated project and the Green Paper.
The purpose of the proposed forum would be to exchange ideas and information about the development of democracy in member states. Its task would be to identify and evaluate significant innovations, to develop standards for innovative democratic practice and to disseminate learning among member states. The forum would build upon the working practices pioneered in the integrated project and take an inclusive, transversal and multi-disciplinary approach. It would also bring together representatives from Council of Europe member states, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, the Council of Europe’s INGO Conference, civil society and expert academics.
Given the conference’s focus upon the information society, it was agreed that the forum should investigate systematically the ways in which new technologies can enable democratic reform. The forum would build upon the Council of Europe’s new recommendations on e-voting and e-governance, while also developing a broader perspective on e-democracy, in association with the new project “Good governance in the information society”.
Considering the workshop outcomes, there was little enthusiasm for the most radical, or unusual, reforms proposed in the Green Paper – such as universal citizenship (proposal No. 1) or lotteries for electors (proposal No. 3). The reforms that excited more interest were those that built upon practices already existing somewhere within Council of Europe member states, and which sought to develop and combine these in new ways, often at new levels of governance or in the service of new groups of political actors.
· Electoral processes: enhancing turn-out and inclusion
Among the Green Paper reforms, there was most interest in those that directly addressed the challenge of enhancing turn-out and tackling political exclusion. Developing practice and standards in relation to remote voting was considered a priority (proposal No. 27). E-voting was seen to have an important potential role, but within the context of a multi-channel approach that retained traditional methods and experimented with a range of new methods, for example postal, digital TV, telephone. There was also interest in investigating the feasibility and implications of including an option for “none of the above” (NOTA) on ballot forms (to enable those who do not support existing candidates to record a vote) (proposal No. 2). Another proposed reform that aroused significant interest concerned voting rights for denizens (legally resident foreigners who are not accorded full citizenship rights), which already exist in some countries, usually at the local level (proposal No. 9). Learning needs to be shared between member states and the possibility of “scaling up” to a regional and/or national level investigated.
· Parties: promoting fairer funding and internal democracy
There was agreement that the cost of politics is spiralling out of control and that practices of illicit financing are undermining the legitimacy of political parties and politicians. There was some support for the Green Paper idea of introducing vouchers for financing political parties and election campaigns, by which the responsibility for the allocation of public funds would shift from the state towards citizens (proposal No. 23). Beyond the electoral arena, there was concern regarding the quality of intra-party democracy, but less consensus regarding strategies for reform (proposal No. 21). There was some support for further investigation into the contribution that could be played by primaries (for internal party offices and candidates for public office).
· Citizen involvement: supporting civic education and direct democracy
There was considerable support from the conference for the further development of innovations in direct democracy, notably referendums and popular initiatives (proposal No. 24). This is an arena in which the proposed forum could produce guidelines, with the aim of clarifying the scope and limitations of different mechanisms. New technology could also play an important role in supporting direct democracy, through online deliberation for instance (proposal No. 26). Discussion at the conference reflected a firm commitment to the importance of citizenship education (and support for the European Year for Citizenship through Education organised by the Council of Europe in 2005). There was particular interest in education through active experience in democratic practice and governance – for instance within schools – as a complement to pedagogical elements (proposal No. 11). Some interest was also shown in new forms of civic service (proposal No. 10), citizenship mentors (proposal No. 7) and in experiments with participatory budgeting (proposal No. 18). Across all these areas, it was agreed that the new forum should seek to promote gender balance and further the inclusion of young people and of foreigners in public life, thus building on important aspects of the acquis.
The conference expressed a positive perspective on the future of democracy in Europe. There was agreement that democracy is not an end-state but an objective. Democratic practice needs to be continually reviewed and re-created in order that it may address new external challenges and overcome those tensions that emerge internally. The work of the Council of Europe, including the Green Paper, was considered of paramount importance to the project of democratic renewal. It was agreed that reforms must be robust but also revisable. They should express the fundamental values of the acquis while also allowing for sufficient institutional variety to secure citizen commitment within diverse European contexts. The conference expressed its concern that the “Barcelona momentum’ be maintained in the months to come. The conference recommended that consideration be given to the proposal to establish a Forum for the Future of Democracy within the preparatory process for the forthcoming Council of Europe Summit of Heads of State and Government, to be held in Warsaw, May 2005.
1 . Developing democracy in Europe – An analytical summary of the Council of Europe’s acquis, and The future of democracy in Europe – Trends, analyses and reforms were both published by Council of Europe Publishing, 2004.