Addressing economic inequality is key to restoring political participation and democratic legitimacy.
Acccording to the V-Dem Institute, in 2021 the global level of democracy was once more back to where it was in 1989—the year the Berlin wall came down—inverting over those three decades the arc of democratic progress. Alongside the decline of democracies, a process of autocratisation is emerging in 33 countries, which include 36 per cent of the world’s population.
This process can even be observed in member states of the European Union, with Hungary and Poland the main examples, followed by Romania and Bulgaria—especially with regard to the lack of institutional balance among the judiciary, the executive and the legislature. Many EU member states have unstable governments: in 21 there has been at least one change of government during the last two scheduled legislative periods, with four in Bulgaria, six in Austria and seven in Italy and Romania. In five, the government does not have a majority in parliament.
The Franco-German axis is no longer driving European integration. The heterogeneity in the European Council makes it easy to block decisions—and to resist the removal of national vetoes.
The winner in this is the European Commission. Even more than in previous crises—with its roles in the ‘troika’, the European Semester and the excessive-deficit procedure associated with the eurozone crisis—it is taking on new competences or is being entrusted with them by the European Council. Following the blueprint of joint vaccine procurement, this model is being extended to other sectors and products—within the framework of the critical-raw-materials strategy, armaments, procurement of energy sources and much more. It is a worrying trend towards expert-ocracy.
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The next two years will be an even greater stress test for the EU system. The world is in a ‘geopolitical depression’, due to escalating rivalry between economic and military blocs, which is leading to a global rearmament even of countries, such as Japan, which have pursued a pacific policy.
Given the influence Russia exerted on the 2016 elections in the United States, it can be assumed Russia will also support favourable parties in EU member states. As a result of ever higher energy costs and inflation, a strengthening of polarising forces is not unrealistic.
In May last year, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected president of France after a run-off with the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen. His mandate though was at a low last seen in 1969, with a 60 per cent turnout. Of the non-voters, he said: ‘Their silence shows a refusal to make a decision. We have to respond to that.’
In Germany in 2021, Olaf Scholz was able to prevail in becoming chancellor. Yet he also faced criticism because his democratic legitimacy was based on only 25 per cent of voters backing his SPD party. Latterly, in Italy, a right-wing populist party, Fratelli d’Italia, was elected to power with the lowest voter participation in the country’s history, 64 per cent.
Decline in participation
The trend is thus towards ‘exclusive democracy’, in which significant parts of civil society do not exercise their right to vote. While in western Europe the average participation in elections in 1975 was 82 per cent, only 75 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls in 2012. In eastern Europe, the decline in participation has been more dramatic—from 72 per cent in 1991 to 57 per cent in 2012. Turnout in European elections meanwhile fell from 62 per cent in 1979, when direct elections to the European Parliament began, to 51 per cent last time out in 2019.
While over the decades there have been liberal gains for women, members of minorities and rights generally, the privileged have become too comfortable in their ‘two-thirds democracy’. The lowest third have been left behind economically, socially and culturally.
This is the broken promise of democracy, which must always rest on equality as well as freedom. A 2020 survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation showed that support for the idea of democracy in Europe was high. Satisfaction with its functioning was however significantly lower.
How satisfied (zufrieden) are you with the functioning of democracy in your country and the EU?
People who are dissatisfied with democratic institutions are not necessarily hostile to the system but disappointed with its performance. The real problem is not turnout per se but the associated social sifting. A rule of thumb is that as social exclusion increases voter turnout decreases. Right-wing populist parties exacerbate this faultline by projecting cultural prejudices on to it.
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From a trade union perspective, the cause of the crisis of democracy is to be found in economic inequality. Since the end of the last century, the financialisation of the world economy has increased dramatically, accompanied by yawning income and wealth disparities. In Europe, for example, 10 per cent of the wealthiest households own 50 per cent of the wealth, while the 40 per cent least wealthy own 3 per cent.
This economic inequality could be offset by redistribution but this is hampered by lack of democratic state power to shape policy. Across the member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average share of the working class in the national parliament is 5 per cent, compared with 58 per cent in the population as a whole.
The depoliticisation of economic and fiscal policy in recent decades has meanwhile funnelled decision-making through institutions which have no direct accountability to voters. Deregulated global capitalism erodes the democratic power of states to shape policy. The growing influence of central banks is a symptom of this ‘authoritarian liberalism’.
The abandonment of social dialogue and social partnership—bringing the struggle to the streets in the United Kingdom and France—must not become a blueprint for the European model. Trade unions and co-determination are an important democratic element in shaping transformation processes in a socially acceptable way.
The 2024 European elections are a litmus test for the resilience of European democracy and its mobilising power but also for the cohesion of the EU. Voter turnout in 2019 varied widely—from 60 per cent in Germany to 29 per cent in Slovakia.
In May last year the European Parliament called for reform of the electoral law, providing for a strengthening of the Spitzenkandidaten (top candidates) principle and a second vote with which European candidates can be elected via transnational electoral lists. Such reforms, allied to the strengthening of the parliament as the legislator of the EU, are important building-blocks to enhance the involvement of the democratic sovereign—Europe’s workers and citizens.