European democracies: it’s time for a renewal

We celebrated the opening of our FES Democracy of the Future Office in Vienna.

We celebrated the opening of our FES Democracy of the Future Office in Vienna with a panel discussion on the “Renewal of the European Democracies”, moderated by Johanna Lutz, head of FES’ new regional democracy office. The panel featured Martin Schulz, president of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Philipp Ther, professor for Eastern European history at the University of Vienna, Nóra Schulz, co-founder of the Hungarian movement “Szikra”, and Maria Maltschnig, director of the Karl-Renner-Institut.

For some time now, one could observe declining democratic quality across Europe. This is reflected in the decreasing trust of citizens in the representative institutions and democracy as the best form of the government, decreasing voter turnout, increasing socio-economic inequalities, the rise of the populist radical Right, and the growing political and societal polarization. What is more, in some European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, the efforts that are undermining the substance of liberal democracy, such as severe weakening of checks and balances and the rule of law coupled with restrictions of civil liberties, have become a reality. To counteract these developments, the case is clear: European democracies need a renewal.

The panellists discussed how we arrived at the current state of the European democracies: Philipp Ther recapitulated the vivid history of Central and Eastern European democracies of the past decades and explained how the kind of economic transformation that those countries underwent led to the disappointment with democracy. Nóra Schultz added that the repercussions of the financial crisis also fueled the decline of democracy in Hungary. She illustrated the various steps that Viktor Orbán has since undertaken to destabilize democracy. Schultz also stressed that the Hungarian opposition has proven to be able to act in unison. In order to win the upcoming parliamentary election, it was crucial that the opposition not only address the shortcomings regarding the rule of law but also have an appealing socio-economic platform, the activist said. Martin Schulz took a European perspective and shared his unique insight into how optimism and progress since the EU enlargement turned into today’s situation of needing to reinforce European values of respect, tolerance, and dignity while also safeguarding against perilous attacks against the judiciary. Maria Maltschnig talked about the developments in Austria, stressed the importance of local governance in renewing democracies, and highlighted the role of inequality.

How can we counter the challenges that democracies across Europe are facing?  The panellists emphasized that the majority of people still care about living in a democracy. But as there are asymmetrically declining voter turnouts throughout Europe, we must think about new forms of participation. Moreover, it is necessary to help regions that feel left behind. Neoliberal developments in all of Europe and the repercussions of the financial crisis in several countries have affected their democracies. Especially in structurally weak regions, social inequality has contributed to the deepening of both societal and political polarization. Martin Schulz concluded that it was necessary to formulate a shared European vision yet to operate in a country-specific manner in order to maintain and secure democracy.