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Executive Summary

The context

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, went the conflict that had oriented our thinking and action about politics for more than half a century. To the surprise of almost everyone, it went out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Europe, from West to East, suddenly found itself in a much-enlarged democratic space. Membership in the Council of Europe had increased to forty-five in 2004. The European Union expanded to twenty-five countries, with others preparing to join. Never before has there been such a large number of politically active, trans-national networks motivated by the “interests and passions” of citizens to promote and protect the quality of their democracy.

In this unprecedentedly favorable context, how does one explain the widespread discontent with the practice of “real existing” democracy in Europe. Citizens’ reactions have ranged from indifference, neglect and ras-le-bol, through suspicion and mistrust of politicians, to overt hostility towards “politics” – whether of the left, right or centre. The convergence of these trends at the European level could be observed in the low turnout for the 2004 European Parliament elections, but this only mirrors in an exaggerated way the rising abstention that has affected national elections.

If it is to retain its legitimacy, contemporary democracy must react, adapt and actively attempt to mould its environment if it is to have a significant effect upon improving the socio-political, cultural and economic “well-being” of its citizens. Today’s governments throughout Europe are being assailed by a myriad of external forces. These have changed the context in which liberal political democracy operates. Governments and elected representatives have found it increasingly difficult to cope with these changes through their traditional institutions and arrangements. Just to list the major ones currently affecting “real existing” democracy in Europe, these are: globalisation, European integration, inter-cultural migration, demographic trends, economic performance, technological change, state capacity, individuation, mediatisation and a prevailing sense of insecurity.

The structure

This Green Paper on “The Future of Democracy in Europe Trends, Analyses and Reforms” addresses each of these outside forces as posing both “challenges and opportunities” to the way democracy has been practised, analyses their impact upon citizenship, representation and decision-making institutions and concludes by proposing some twenty-nine potential reforms that are intended to make democratic institutions work better and, hence, enhance the legitimacy of governing and governance arrangements by making them more accountable to the will of the people, a politically skilled and responsible demos.

Part I defines the major external challenges and opportunities facing democracy in Europe. It interprets them through the analytical device of rival hypotheses. For each there is a potentially negative impact and a potentially positive one. In other words, democracy could be strengthened or weakened, depending on the reaction of existing political forces and their willingness or resistance to reform. For example, globalisation has weakened the authority and capacity of the national state to solve problems, particularly those involving economic regulation, but it has also provided non-state and trans-national actors with increased resources to pressure for more effective regulation across national borders. The rise of better-educated and differently employed citizens has brought with it greater “individuation” in the way in which they conceive interests and passions. This, in turn, has undermined the collectivist spirit that once belonged to trade unions, political parties and comprehensive social movements. But these changes have brought with them a personalised and intense conception of political action that demands more flexible and participatory structures that cut across the previous categories of class and ideology.

Inter-cultural migration may have triggered xenophobic reactions from certain segments of the “native population”, thereby adding fuel to ultra-nationalist political parties. In the longer run, however, citizens in multi-cultural societies acquire a broader outlook and a greater tolerance for diversity. Moreover, the presence of high numbers of permanent foreign residents (denizens) places new issues on the political agenda and tends to stimulate competition between parties, if and when these denizens become citizens.

Part II of the Green Paper analyses the democratic “actors and processes” in relation to the extrinsic “challenges and opportunities” and to the intrinsic tendencies of the practice of “real-existing” democracy. Organising their discussion around “citizenship”, “representation” and “decision making”, the authors reveal trends, examine how the polities and citizens have responded and discuss experimental initiatives.

Topics include rising citizen disaffection, the political exclusion of denizens, the erosion of the appeal and organizational core of traditional political parties, the quantitative and qualitative transformation of civil society associations, the rise of direct citizen consultation in the form of referendums and the popular initiative, the increased importance of non-democratic ‘guardian’ institutions outside effective democratic control, and the shift in responsibility for decision making both downwards to sub-national units and upwards to the European Union.

Citizens’ disaffection and discontent, as reflected in falling voter turnout and rising distrust of political institutions and politicians, is a strand that runs throughout this Green Paper. For example, based on trends over the past thirty years, the authors project that if voter turnout continues to fall at its current rate, abstention in national parliamentary elections could be as high as 45% in Central and Eastern Europe, and 65% in Western Europe by 2020. This could very well compromise the legitimacy of decisions taken by parliament.

Citizens tend to direct their criticism towards individual politicians of whatever ideological or programmatic orientation and to focus on their increasingly similiar promises and ineffectual programmes. “Politicking”, the simple act of behaving like a politician (and an increasingly professional one at that) has become a term of derision, synonymous with exploitive backroom deals and ineffectual power struggles. These attitudes can be linked to social status and education levels, and range from an ill- articulated feeling of general discontent among the poor and less educated to a more focused and informed criticism emanating from well off, better-educated and more politically knowledgeable groups in society.

What emerges from this analysis is that a substantial number of citizens tend to believe that politicians are not to be trusted, that governments are out of touch with the people, and that today’s persistent problems are beyond the reach of public policy. Added to this is the “blurred” political space created by the tendency towards multi-level governance, which makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to identify who is really responsible for taking decisions binding upon all.

The authors also put the reader on guard against the decline of democratic decision making in certain public and private institutions. This tendency to “replace citizens rather than represent them” is one of the intrinsic dangers of democracy when it relies increasingly on a technocracy of experts and specialised knowledge. Operating outside the realm of public scrutiny, such guardian institutions are not accountable to citizens for their decisions, even though they do have a substantial impact on the life opportunities of citizens and were previously in the domain of the public good. For the authors, much of the future of democracy will depend on how this delegation in practice can be reconciled with democracy in principle, which should be firmly rooted in accountability to the citizenry.

Part III proposes a list of twenty-nine institutional reforms that are aimed at enhancing citizen participation in decision-making and at making rulers (whether elected or selected) more accountable. Most of them are novel. The focus is upon doing democracy differently, rather than upon improving what is already in place. In some cases, they are also designed simply to make politics more fun and appealing, especially to young citizens. Some of these proposals, or at least aspects of them, are similar to those already being tried out in Europe and could be transferred to other countries. The authors stress, however, that reforms do not always have the same effect in different places, should always be considered as experimental, and should be adapted to different situations in different European states. The reforms were drafted taking into account the following guidelines:

impartiality: the reforms should not be designed to benefit a particular party or ideology;
feasibility: the reforms proposed should be capable of being implemented, evaluated and disseminated;

  • level of application: in general, reforms should be initially tested at lower levels of government and very gradually transferred to higher and more encompassing levels;
  • strategy: reforms should be experimental at first, and tried out in most dissimilar sub-units of political systems;
  • time horizon: they should be generally able to be adapted quickly;
  • selection criteria: all the reforms presented were chosen on the basis of a general consensus of the authors. They were not all approved unanimously, but if an author disagreed with a reform applying to his or her particular domain of expertise, it was not included.

A few salient examples

The list of reforms includes shared mandates, specialised elected councils, democracy kiosks, citizenship mentors, denizen’s councils, voting rights for denizens, education for political participation, guardians to watch the guardians, media guardians, freedom of information, a “yellow card” for legislatures, incompatibility of mandates, framework legislation, a citizen’s assembly, variable thresholds for elections, vouchers for funding civil society organisations and for political parties, referendums and initiatives, smart voting, electronic monitoring and online deliberation systems, postal and e-voting, an agent for the promotion of democratic reform – some creative examples are given below.

Universal citizenship. This would grant full political rights from birth to all born in a state, citizens living abroad, and to subsequently naturalised children. Children would be registered voters but their vote would be exercised by their parents until they reached the age of political maturity.

Discretionary voting. This reform would enable voters to designate both a first and second preference in elections, change the order of preferences in a party listing, or vote for NOTA (none-of-the-above). Citizens could also be given voting points to distribute across candidates, making it easier to see the degree of approval for those elected.

Compulsory civic service. This three-phase reform would replace military service. Phase 1 would be compulsory for citizens or denizens between the ages of 17 and 23 and would require them to study civic education for one month, followed by several months on the job in a civil society organisation or public service agency, chosen on the basis of a bid. They would be paid a modest salary. This period could be followed by a voluntary Phase 2, when participants could spend another year in civic service and would receive (in addition to the modest stipend) vouchers to be spent on education, valid for ten years. Phase 3 would extend civic service work to another year, and the organisation chosen would match the salary paid from public funds and participants would be entitled to two more years worth of education vouchers.

Funding for political parties. Citizens when they vote could also allocate varying proportions of a fixed sum coming from public funds to the political party (or parties) of their choice. Or, if they preferred, they could assign all or part of their voucher to NOTA (none-of-the-above), meaning to none of the existing parties. This money would accumulate and subsequently be made available to groups of citizens who met pre-specified criteria and who wished to found a new political party.

Participatory budgeting by citizens. A proportion of total budgeted funding would be earmarked in advance for distribution by an assembly of citizens, initially, at neighbourhood level. After hearing competing proposals from public agencies and civil society organisations, these citizens would deliberate among themselves and decide on the priorities and proportions to be spent on different projects or programmes. Since implementing this reform would require the participation of citizens directly informed about needs and capable of deliberating within a relatively small group, it is unlikely to be appropriate for larger political units. At the national level, a simpler system could be implemented under which citizens via referendum could express their preference concerning what portion of the whole public budget should go to which level of government, but not designate how these funds should be spent.

Smart voting: This novel use of information and communication technology (ICT) would require that all candidates fill out an extensive questionnaire detailing their preferences on a wide range of issues. Prospective voters would then fill out the same questionnaire and discover which candidate or party more closely matches their political profile. More elaborate versions would allow citizens to engage in deliberation with politicians, before and after the election, as well as to access to their past voting records. One could even imagine an interactive version that would trigger a message to interested citizens if and when a politician voted contrary to the preference registered in his original questionnaire – and offer him or her an opportunity to explain their action.

Voting lotteries: Each citizen after having voted would receive one of three lottery tickets (one for first-time voters, another for those who voted regularly in previous elections, and a third for all other voters). Winning tickets would be announced at the same time as the result of the vote, and the winners would be entitled to allocate a portion of public funds to any public programme or civil society organisation of their choice.

These proposed reforms are not definitive and, alone, each one would only make a marginal contribution to improving the quality of democracy in Europe. “Packages” of them implemented together should be more effective, and might even serve to compensate for the risks posed to specific parties or political forces by any single one. Even if they were all implemented simultaneously (an impossible scenario), they would probably not eliminate all discontent with “real-existing democracy”. Some discontent is intrinsic to democracy, since its ideals will always exceed its practices. Moreover, we are aware that any reforms will produce unintended consequences as citizens will seek to “game” them in order to reach their own private objectives. Democracies are unique in their capacity to reform themselves, using the existing rules of the game and capabilities of their citizens. Even when they have reformed themselves, new areas of discontent will appear, and newer reforms would be needed to combat these, as well as to accommodate to other challenges and opportunities as they emerge.

At best, democracy proposes a sovereign citizenry, a transparent polity and supremely accountable and disposable rulers. Though few believe that perfect democracy can be obtained, paying heed to this holy grail, now secular and multicultural, can still define the paths that both polities and citizens should follow if a plurality of needs emanating from a highly diversified demos are to be satisfied.