A Blueprint for Europe

Issue Date April 2022
Volume 33
Issue 2
Page Numbers 162–66
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Rebuilding European Democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age. By Richard Youngs. London: I.B. Tauris, 2022. 256 pp.

As war returns to Europe, the region’s politics has acquired a grandeur that was lacking in recent years. The David-versus-Goliath struggle between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenksy, has given a human form to the competition between democracy and autocracy, between open and closed societies.

Just as September 11 fundamentally changed America, February 24—the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—upended the politics of many European countries. In an astonishing February 27 speech to the German parliament, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, tacking away from his country’s historically cautious global stance, announced the arming of Ukrainian fighters—ending a ban on exporting weapons to active conflict zones. He also committed to increasing military spending to 2 percent of GDP and to reducing dependence on Russian gas. Denmark pledged to hold a referendum on the country’s EU defense policy opt-out, while nonaligned Finland and Sweden are considering joining NATO. Those that had refused to open their borders during the 2015 refugee crisis, such as Hungary and Poland, have welcomed millions of Ukrainians fleeing the invasion. And the West is taking aim at Russian oligarchs and their dirty money in an astonishingly tough set of sanctions against the Putin regime.

About the Author

Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict (2021).

View all work by Mark Leonard

The war in Ukraine has also strengthened the position of many of Europe’s mainstream leaders while depriving Kremlin-backed populist parties of legitimacy. This political shift could strengthen a trend—already in evidence before Putin’s fateful invasion—that populism may have peaked as prodemocratic parties fight back. The green shoots of democratic recovery have begun to sprout around the world. Much attention went to Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump; more recently, democratic oppositions triumphed at the ballot box in Honduras and Zambia. And in Europe there also are signs of democratic resistance and renewal. After the drama of Brexit, politics have turned toward the mainstream. In 2017, French voters elected pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron to the presidency. The popularity of the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany has receded among Germans, and Scholz’s centrist “traffic-light” coalition formed in 2021. After a chaotic government comprising the far-right Lega and protopopulist Five Star Movement, Italians are now in thrall to the pragmatic technocracy of Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Richard Youngs has written a volume that serves as the intellectual underpinning for this unexpected revival of European democracy. It is a thoughtful challenge to the pessimism of the last decade that anticipated the death of democracy in Europe.

Youngs begins with a survey of several reasons for that pessimism. A plethora of indices measuring the quality of democracy—such as those of Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, Varieties of Democracy, and International IDEA—signals that freedom is increasingly threatened in Europe. Underlying these pessimistic rankings are a series of crises concerning crackdowns on civil liberties, disrespect for the rule of law, populism’s rise, declines in popular trust in politics and political parties, and falling democratic participation. And perhaps the most worrying long-term concern is a shift away from democratic values, particularly among younger Europeans. Strikingly, 42 percent of Germans possess authoritarian views according to a 2018 University of Leipzig report (p. 26).

But Youngs claims that these pessimistic headlines capture only part of the story about democracy in Europe. Scholarly focus on the taxonomy and theory of democratic recession and deconsolidation has obscured the past decade’s positive trends. Trying to correct this, he identifies two positive trends from this period: First is a general spirit of resistance to illiberalism; and second is a self-conscious set of projects to “renew” democracy by supplementing traditional representation with popular deliberative forums, by forming new parties, and by introducing new mechanisms to make politics more responsive. The book, offering an alternate taxonomy to that of the democratic pessimists, describes these forces of resistance and renewal at six levels—from the grassroots to the EU.

The first level of optimism concerns the activities of citizens themselves. The number of antigovernment protests in Europe rose from just over fifty in 2009 to more than two hundred in 2019. Some of these movements have been responses to specific issues, such as government austerity measures, but many are also about the health of the democratic system. Protests against political illiberalism erupted in Poland, which were mobilized in part by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), and throughout Italy with the so-called Sardines movement, which started as a single flash mob organized on Facebook. Corruption was a key driver of protests in the Czech Republic, which in 2019 saw the largest antigovernment demonstrations since the communist era, and in Malta where protesters compelled Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to resign. Youngs takes a closer look at the case of Romania, where demonstrations erupted in 2021 primarily over the privatization of health services but then focused increasingly on corruption. Citizens no longer seem willing to be bystanders to democratic backsliding and are ready to actively defend European democracy.

Youngs’s chapter on democratic innovation at the second level, that of national governments, has a particular focus on President Macron’s “Grand Débat” initiatives, which raised the profile of efforts to involve citizens more directly in public affairs. Spurred in part by the 2018 Yellow Vest protests, the following year Macron launched several initiatives for democratic participation. Among these were an online platform where 1.9 million people submitted suggestions on four specified topics: the environment, democracy, taxes, and public services. Youngs deems the Grand Débat a positive example of citizen participation but also a successful tactical move by the government to channel popular frustrations into more easily controlled forms of participation.

Macron’s party, En Marche, seems the perfect example of the reshaping of party politics in Europe, which Youngs describes as the third level of democratic renovation. On the one hand, En Marche, created in 2016, shook up the French party system and at first resembled in many ways a bottom-up political movement. On the other hand, it tries to defend the longstanding democratic political system against more radical parties on the left and right and was orchestrated to a large extent from the top to serve Macron’s presidential ambitions.

The fourth level concerns attempts by the EU and its member states to reclaim technology for democracy. Concern over technology has mounted as issues such as digital privacy, the power of big tech’s biggest players, disinformation, and state-sponsored cyberattacks have threatened Europe’s information space, election integrity, and sovereignty. While the past decade saw increased regulation of social-media platforms and stronger defenses against disinformation and cyberattacks, Youngs’s assessment of efforts to foster democratic empowerment through digital means is more sober; he offers a typology including “e-petitioning, digital municipalism, and e-parties,” but highlights the need to support bolder innovations that go beyond citizen-led and bottom-up initiatives (p. 156). Given the fundamental challenges posed to democratic rule by technology, Youngs is correct to identify the need to fully integrate it into a long-term democracy strategy for Europe.

An intriguing fifth level of the story of democratic renewal and innovation is the extent to which citizens can look to Brussels as a remedy for national democratic diseases. Having come under criticism for distributing substantial sums to national governments (namely, those of Hungary and Poland) that disrespect EU values and the rule of law, the EU has made attempts to condition the receipt of funds on adherence to the rule of law.

On the sixth level, Youngs considers how the EU could be made more democratic by implementing elements of direct democracy (such as citizens’ initiatives and dialogues) or by selecting the head of the EU executive branch, the Commission president, based on the outcome of the EU parliamentary elections—the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process. Youngs sees several useful efforts to increase the EU’s democratic legitimacy, but concludes that most promises were not followed through.

Youngs’s book provides a useful set of analytic tools for students of democracy, activists, and politicians and acts as an important counterpoint to the perhaps excessive democratic pessimism of recent years. Yet as Youngs readily admits, his volume assesses Europe’s democratic health through a conventional liberal and representative understanding of democracy. As such, he misses a chance to engage more deeply with some of the structural changes to European societies, communities, and workplaces brought about by digital technologies, globalization, and migration. Drivers of democratic recession in many accounts, these changes are creating crises of representation, of the definition and aggregation of societal interests, and of democratic choice. By presenting democratic resistance and renewal within conventional frameworks, Youngs tends to underplay the revolutionary potential of these challenges. Indeed, while the question is outside his scope, it is worth asking whether they will make it impossible for democracy to continue in its contemporary form.

But on its own terms, this volume could be much discussed if the strengthening of the political center against the extremes—a trend that the war in Ukraine seems to be reinforcing, at least in the short term—continues. The invasion comes amid the covid-19 pandemic, another crisis which has done much to boost incumbents. According to Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, it transformed many populist parties from representatives of “silent majorities” into ones of “unvaccinated minorities.” Because a majority of Europeans accepted the imperatives of public health and embraced covid vaccines, many populist parties have tried to abandon their populist identity and to reinvent themselves as new libertarians. It is yet to be seen how voters will respond, but these parties may once again be reduced to mouthpieces for the disgruntled margins of society.

The millions of Ukrainians seeking sanctuary, and the skyrocketing costs of electricity, oil, and gas due to sanctions against Russia could prove to be another major test for the future of liberal democracy in Europe. Will the impressive European solidarity during the first few weeks of the war hold? Or could antimigrant sentiment and other issues, such as climate change, power a new populist surge?

That test will play out in part at the ballot box, with a series of elections—in Hungary, France, Slovenia, Poland, and Italy—that will register European voters’ satisfaction with leaders who run the gamut from populist and illiberal to liberal and technocratic. To prevail, incumbent governments will have to maintain economic and social resilience in the face of Russian aggression. New attempts to share the burden of sanctions, similar to solidarity mechanisms developed in covid’s wake, are likely. And many are optimistic that Ukrainian refugees, overwhelmingly white and Christian, will spark less popular resistance than those who arrived during the 2015 migrant crisis. But these racial and religious traits did not stop U.K. voters from abandoning the EU in part due to the number of European migrants, particularly those from Poland, who had moved to the United Kingdom. If these efforts to maintain solidarity against Russia do not deliver concrete results before the elections, voters could reject incumbent governments or back populists. This will determine whether Richard Youngs’s work will be seen as a textbook for building a bright democratic future for Europe or as merely a tome of momentary democratic renewal and innovation against the secular decline in the health of liberal and representative democracy. As Youngs correctly concludes: “The signs that democracy’s adverse tide could be turning are clear, but stronger commitment and political action will be needed to make this change decisive” (p. 220).


Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press