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Part III. Recommendations for reform


In our research on “actors and processes” in relation to the “challenges and opportunities” facing contemporary European democracies, we discovered that politicians and citizens were not only aware of pressing needs for reform, but they were also responding creatively to these needs. Contrary to the prevailing impression that the well-established democracies to the West are too sclerotic to make any substantial changes in their rules and practices and that the neo-democracies to the East are concerned only with mimicking these very same rules and practices, we found lots of examples of innovation and experimentation. Needless to say, these efforts were often scattered and too recent to be able to evaluate their potential contribution. Many were emerging from local levels of government and from specialised arenas of governance. Most often these reforms aimed at greater transparency and participation in decision making by citizens and “stakeholders”. Not surprisingly, the growing problems associated with party finance and corruption elicited responses at the national level, although non-governmental organisations, such as Transparency International and international organisations, such as the Council of Europe, have also played an important role in identifying poor quality performance and setting standards. Around the more encompassing issues of globalisation and international migration, reform efforts primarily involved trans-national organisations and international agreements, including Council of Europe framework conventions on such matters as the protection of national minorities, the participation of foreigners in public life and the rules relating to the acquisition of nationality. Although it was not founded for this purpose, the entire “experiment” in European integration could be interpreted today as an attempt to respond regionally to the challenge of globalisation. Given the multiplicity of levels of aggregation and diversity in existing rules and practices among European democracies, it should come as no surprise that these responses have not been uniform and frequently have gone unobserved and under-evaluated.

As we now turn to our recommendations for reform, we should recognise that several of them were inspired by the dispersed efforts that European democracies are already making to meet the challenges and opportunities of the “interesting times” in which we have been condemned to live. Unfortunately, however, many of these are so recent that we cannot be sure that they will succeed in improving the quality of democracy. Moreover, we also have to recognise that there are several problematic areas in which very little has been tried. For example, almost everyone by now recognises that citizens are less and less likely to vote or to join political parties, but no one seems to be seriously trying to do something about this.

When James Madison was trying to convince his fellow American citizens to take the risk of reforming their political institutions in the Federalist Papers: No. 10, he articulated a famous dilemma. Democracy did not only resolve problems; it also created them – not the least of which was its tendency to produce “factions”. Give citizens the freedom to express their opinions and to act collectively and they will “fall into mutual animosities (over) the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions”. His response was brilliant: If “the causes of faction cannot be removed [without destroying democracy itself] … relief is only to be sought in the mean of controlling its effects”.

We have tried to take Madison’s advice into account. And nowhere is this more evident in the contemporary world than with regard to the effect of the mass media. Newspapers, radio and especially, television, have effectively transformed democracy into a “public spectacle”. What is supposed to be a solemn process of collective reflection by virtuous citizens deliberating on and choosing among competing conceptions of the public good has become a much publicised circus of stock speeches, televised sound bites, symbolic invocations, vacuous claims and counter-claims, and choreographed events. And there is no way of eliminating this without harming the basic freedoms upon which liberal democracy rests. The answer, we believe, lies in trying to control its effects. In other words, the best way to do this is to make politics more, not less, entertaining. Several of the reforms recommended below are intended (primarily but never exclusively) to make participation in elections, in political parties or in civil society easier, more interesting, and quite frankly, more fun. As one wise observer put it in response to an earlier draft of this text, “you have taken the Fun Factor [Spa▀faktor] into account”.

When recommending specific institutional reforms, we found it imperative to return to our starting point, which is, “democracy is the word for something that does not exist”.

First, we recognise that promoting democracy will always be “unfinished business”. Successes in coping with particular challenges or seizing particular opportunities will only shift expectations towards new ones in the future. Citizens will focus their demands for equality on new sources of discrimination, for accountability to new relations of domination, for self-respect to new arenas of collective identity. All that we can realistically hope for is that the reform measures we advocate will move the polity in a positive direction – never that they will definitively fill “the democracy deficit”.

Second, we reject the notion that there is one ideal type of democracy that all European countries should adopt at once or even converge towards gradually. Therefore, it should not be the task of the Council of Europe to identify and advocate a set of identical reforms that would do this. Each member state will have to find its “proper” way of coping with the unprecedented range of challenges and opportunities that face the region as a whole. They have a lot to learn from each other, and the Council of Europe must play an active role in fostering that process, but the points of departure are different as are the magnitude and mix of challenges and opportunities. Hence, reforms in institutions and rules will not produce the same, positive and intended, effects in all countries that adopt them. Reforms that may be welcomed by the citizens of some member states might be resoundingly rejected by others. One could even argue that such a diversity in meanings and expectations is a healthy thing for the future of democracy in Europe. It ensures a continuous diversity of political experiments within a world region whose units are highly interdependent and capable of learning – positively and negatively – from each other’s experiences.

Summarising grosso modo, we can distinguish three “models” of democracy that persist in all member states to varying degrees – numerical, negotiative and deliberative. They are not incompatible with each other, but each places emphasis on different institutions and consequentially on the reform of different institutions. What is especially important now that we are about to advocate specific changes in formal institutions and informal practices is not to limit ourselves to one or another of these models, but to recognise that all three potentially have something to contribute to improving the quality of democracy in Europe.

Numerical. Democracy consists of a process in which citizens with equal rights and obligations participate directly (in elections, primaries, referendums, initiatives, polls and so forth) or indirectly (through representatives in parliaments, legislative committees, investigatory commissions, advisory councils, local governments and so forth) in the making of binding collective decisions by competition, such that the alternative that receives the most votes (plurality) or more than half the votes (majority) is chosen.

Negotiative. Democracy consists of a process in which citizens with preferences that are of unequal intensity and, at times, of incompatible resolution enter – again, directly or indirectly – into negotiations with each other in order to arrive at a binding collective decision by consensus, that is that is mutually advantageous and, therefore, acceptable to all.

Deliberative. Democracy consists of a process through which citizens agree to exchange information about each other’s interests and passions under conditions of honest disclosure, mutual respect and equal power in order to modify these pre-existing preferences, discover shared solutions and arrive at a binding decision by consensus.

Depending on which model one advocates or regards as most appropriate for a given polity, the object of reform is likely to differ. “Numericals” will tend to focus on measures that encourage citizens to vote, extend the sites at which this occurs, improve the process of tallying up electoral choices and enhance the significance of political parties and representative bodies involved in such mechanisms. “Negotiatives” will be more concerned with improving the means for expressing collective interests and passions through associations and movements and for gaining access to channels of policy making outside the classical partisan-parliamentary one. “Deliberatives” are most likely to favour the development of forums, especially at local or issue-specific levels, in which citizens can meet each other directly, without the intervention of organised intermediaries, and attempt to persuade each other about the best course of action.

The recommendations for reform listed below are not guided exclusively by any one of the three models, but by the conviction that all “real-existing” democracies in Europe are based on some mix of all of them – and that this is a good thing. These recommendations are by no means endorsed with equal enthusiasm by all of the authors, but we have all tried to follow the same guidelines, reviewed in what follows, when proposing them.


Impartiality. We intend to propose reforms, hopefully for collective endorsement by the member states of the Council of Europe, that would improve the quality of democracy. As much as possible, these recommendations should be “neutral” or “ambidextrous” in the sense that they would not be manifestly designed to benefit one party or political tendency (such as left, centre or right) over another. Ideally, the reforms should also be Pareto optimal in that no existing political party or tendency would suffer from their application and all would benefit. This last condition is obviously impossible to satisfy – if only because of the high likelihood of an “anticipated” objection by some party – but it is not impossible that the eventual implementation of the reform would turn out to be Pareto optimal or at least of benefit to such a wide spectrum of interests/passions that the initial minority would come to accept and even endorse it.

Feasibility. Here the primary issue is one of agency, that is what initial combination of political forces operating under the existing rules of the “liberal democratic” game would support and implement such a recommendation. A secondary issue is one of diffusion, namely, how the evaluation of reform measures initiated in one or a group of member states will affect the likelihood of subsequent adoption in others that were initially reluctant to try them out. Proposals were put forward only if we thought there were realistic prospects of both agency and diffusion.

Level of application. The recommended reforms may not produce similar effects (intended/unintended, desired/undesired) at different levels of political aggregation, even within the same polity. Something that has a democracy-enhancing impact at the local level could well have an autocratic impact if adopted nationwide. Therefore, every proposal for reform should specify and justify the appropriate level of its application. In general, the principle of subsidiarity should be applied. Where possible, the initial experimentation with the reform should take place at the lowest level of aggregation and only once it has proven to have democracy-enhancing effects at that level should it be transposed to a higher level – and even then only very cautiously and gradually.

Strategy for implementation. As a rule, the implementation of democratic reforms should be treated as political experiments, that is they should first be introduced into a small number of carefully chosen units, monitored closely for their co-lateral effects and extended to other units at the same or higher level of aggregation only once their positive and negative effects are known. Ideally, the initial units for experimentation should be chosen on the grounds of “most-dissimilar” systems, meaning that one should control for other differences and select units that are as different as possible on the variable or variables that putatively are expected to have the most impact upon success or failure. Often, it is not possible to know beforehand what variable(s) is going to affect implementation. Therefore, it might be desirable to simulate its effect by trying out the reform on a mixture of largest/smallest, most/least developed, or most central/peripheral units.

Time horizon. We were interested in exploring and advocating reforms that could be adopted more quickly, that is without constitutional or treaty-like ratification, than those that could be adopted only through some much lengthier process. Nota bene that it may be possible “on the cheap” to experiment with reforms at a local, less visible level that would have to pass a much higher threshold if they were “nationalised” right away.

Criteria for selection. Only those proposals for reform that generated a consensus among all or most of the authors have been put forth in this Green Paper. If the person most responsible for the substantive aspect of democracy that was directly concerned by the proposed reform was opposed, the reform was not sponsored.