Event Recap: Is Europe Democratic?

Reflecting on the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ in the post-Brexit era.

Joelle Theubet
February 01, 2021

The fourth session of the ‘Debating the Future of Europe’ series, held on January 26, 2021, tackled the question of the European Union’s so-called “democratic deficit” by focusing on democratic participation in Europe, as well as on the EU's response to challenges to democracy within its member states. 

Panelists participating in the discussion included:  Nadia Urbinati (Columbia), Ivan Krastev (Centre for Liberal Strategies), Luuk van Middelaar (Leiden University) Rui Tavares (writer, former EU Parliament member), and event moderator Yves Meny (President Emeritus, European University Institute). 

What do we mean by ‘democracy’?

According to Nadia Urbinati, Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, a democracy must have a constitution and a form of representation “that shapes the relationship between the institutions and the citizens.” For his part, Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, highlighted the importance of the ability to vote out the incumbent leaders, an essential element of democracy that was recently put to the test in the United States.

 “A very important feature of democracy is the capacity to create organized ruptures and discontinuities which are not completely upsetting the system as a whole,” agreed political theorist and historian Luuk van Middelaar. “But this points a problem within the EU, and that is, that there is no clear, identifiable government in the EU. And there is no clear executive.”

As a former Member of the European Parliament, Rui Tavares brought his experience to the table, arguing that “the problem starts with having a definition of democracy that is too thin.”

“Today we do not have the impression that Europe is a polity,” he said. “We have the impression that Europe is an organization composed of polities, so that is the challenge – not to create not a democratic Europe, but to create Europe that is a democracy.”

Not a democracy, but democratic

“The EU is much more liberal than democratic – with opportunities for minorities to have rights,” explained Krastev. “The very existence of the EU is forcing us to change our definition of democracy, even on the level of the nation-state. The states within the EU are not democracies in the way the states outside of the EU are, because many of the decisions cannot be made by the majority. And I do believe these tensions between the liberal principle and the majoritarian principle in the EU is very well articulated.”

Van Middelaar concurred that the EU is built on liberal principles and that democracy is not necessarily in its DNA. However, he notes: “As the European Union is entering more and more controversial, deeply political policy fields – currency, shared borders, power politics, relations with Russia, with the US, with Turkey – there is a public call to have a clearer expression of the democratic will in the outcome of policy decisions.”

“The pandemic has found new ways to make this will heard. Citizens have changed the direction of EU and there is an expression of public opinion – not in the ballot box – but in a public sphere that is changing policy.” he acknowledged.

How can the EU be more democratic?

“There is not a single democracy today that started as one,” noted moderator Yves Mény, who is a member of the Bureau of Political Advisers, set up by the President of the European Commission, wondering: “After 60 years of EU integration, how can democracy in the EU be strengthened?”

Urbinati suggested that the influence of public criticism on the EU’s response to Covid-19 policies may hold the to solving this problem: “Making the role of the sphere of public opinion more evident and more impactful by giving people a critical voice in monitoring institutions would encourage the public to invest more in democratic processes in the EU.”

Rui Tavares concurred: “Europe doesn’t need to be a state or a nation to be a democracy. We can only save national democracy if we democratize the European polity as a multinational polity shared by many states. But we do need to rise up to the challenge of creating something new – not a state but a multinational, transnational democracy. We need to create European public spheres – real brick-and-mortar, multilingual agora – and other avenues of participation, like pan-European media and debate – to give people a notion of their power.”

This discussion is part of the series “Debating the Future of Europe,” organized by Columbia Global Centers | Paris, the European Institute and the Alliance Program.

Co-sponsored by: Columbia Alumni Association,Columbia Maison FrançaiseColumbia University Libraries, the Institute for Ideas and Imagination, European Legal Studies Center at Columbia Law School, Le Grand Continent, La Maison de l'Europe de Paris,and Sciences Po American Foundation. With additional support from the Erasmus + programme of the European Union and the Advisory Board of the Paris Global Center.