Skip to main content

Time to Stand Up for European Democracies

Man shouting at protest in Portugal.
A protester shouts slogans at a demonstration in front of Belem Palace in Lisbon during a State Council meeting on September 21, 2012 called by Portugal's President Anibal Cavaco Silva to analyse the financial crisis in Portugal and Europe. Portugal's Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho said on September 21 that he is open to dialogue on disputed austerity measures, after the planned spending cuts sparked outrage in the bailed out country. Placard at right reads, “Participatory Democracy Now.” © Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

An entire generation of young Europeans see the future with increasing anxiety. They are better prepared than their predecessors, but face bleaker career prospects than any generation since the early post-war years. People from the middle classes realize that upward mobility is becoming rarer and are desperately clinging to their current status, suspecting that almost any change will harm their economic prospects; members of the working classes and poor bear the brunt of cuts in welfare benefits. As the effects of three interlinked economic crises—financial, public debt, and banking—unfold, national politicians and governments look impotent, if not complicit.

People across Europe mistrust political parties and parliaments, depending on the country, only unelected bodies (e.g., constitutional courts, the police, the armed forces, churches, and even television,) have escaped a dramatic drop in trust. Common European institutions appear to be more removed than ever from people’s everyday concerns; the European Union is increasingly seen as part of the problem, rather than a solution. Meanwhile, welfare, multiculturalism, solidarity, tolerance, accountability, integration, and other values upon which Europe has built its post-World War II democracies and its integration process are under unprecedented attack. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that that the economic upheavals have taken a heavy toll on European democracy.

Perhaps the reverse is actually true. Perhaps it is the failure of the European democracies and of their common project which explain the current predicament in which Europe has found itself economically. Institutions that lie at the heart of representative democracies, including trade unions and, in particular, political parties, have implemented policies that have alienated them from the constituencies they claim to represent. In the past two decades, people in Central and Eastern Europe have become used to politics without real policy alternatives or, in Slawomir Sierakowski’s words, to choosing not between right and left, but between right and wrong—that is either following the euro-Atlantic (neo) liberal consensus, or voting for undemocratic or irresponsible alternatives.

This narrowing of the political space has also occurred elsewhere in the European Union, most noticeably in its Southern periphery in the context of the euro crisis. Meanwhile, independent institutions whose legitimacy stems from their ability to handle key aspects of economic life in an impartial manner have proven to be inept at regulating the market in order to avoid cycles of boom and bust. This has had devastating effects on quality of life. When policies promoted as the only reasonable or realistic course result in economic devastation, it should come as no surprise that the whole system is called into question.

Criticism of the state of European democracies and of the democratic quality of the European integration project comes from different corners. In many instances, traditional players in the system raise their voices, just as they have for a long time: from the traditional Left to a large swath of organized labor. A new generation of protesters has been active on the net and in the public squares and the media with calls for democratic renewal that have struck a chord with significant numbers of people. Populism is becoming a familiar presence in the domestic arenas of an increasing number of European countries, influencing mainstream debate and resulting in impoverished political exchange, demagoguery, anti-EU sloganeering, and an erosion of basic democratic values.

Not all expressions of populism should, however, be treated in the same manner. On the one hand, there is a brand of populism that works to enlarge the scope of democratic debate and include new constituencies; on the other hand, there is xenophobic populism, a significant political force in more than half of EU member states which strives to disenfranchise and exclude significant segments of the population from political and social life. For the societies of Europe to remain open, xenophobic populism must be strongly opposed and its message countered.

Civil society organizations are aware of the threats to the principles and values of open societies in Europe. They are actively engaged in working toward the recovery of national and European democracies. They are directly confronting the worrying threats of xenophobia and hate speech, erosion of democratic accountability and separation of powers, corruption and collusion between political and economic elites, threats to media pluralism and free speech, exclusive nationalism, political apathy, and growing political and social exclusion. The Open Society Initiative for Europe is now entering a vibrant and crowded civil society scene in order to participate in debates and foster initiatives in a spirit of partnership and complementarity. Together with organizations and individuals from across the European Union, the Open Society Initiative for Europe will engage at local, national and transnational levels to help breathe new life into the common dream of a Europe united in its respect for the values of open society.

The Nobel Prize awarded to the European Union reminds us that European integration is an expression of the commitment of millions of people and dozens of nations to values of global relevance. Europe is tackling difficult issues that are by no means exclusive to the countries that comprise it, including aging populations, immigration, low-carbon economic development, welfare without growth, competitiveness with fairness, accountability without sovereignty, transnational and multilingual politics. The failure or success of the European Union in meeting these challenges will be relevant to the whole world and will largely depend on the ability of European civil society to instil new life into resilient but embattled national democracies and their common integration project, the European Union. After decades of involvement in civil society mobilization, the Open Society Foundations are giving a clear indication of their continued commitment to standing by Europe in these challenging times with the creation of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world