EU: “The functioning of the EU is founded on representative democracy. Being a European citizen also means enjoying political rights. Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament. EU citizens have the right to stand as candidate and to vote in their country of residence, or in their country of origin.”
Many modern Europeans have lived their entire lives under the safety and liberty of our democratic governments and institutions. Elections, free thought, and equality under the law are, for most, as commonplace as the daily sunrise. Democracy also presupposes a mind-set that rejects the right of the strong and favours compassion and attention to more vulnerable groups in society. Yet in the grand scheme of history functioning democracies are more the exception than the rule. As good Europeans know, the ancient Athenians under Cleisthenes were likely the first to adopt an early form of direct democracy. Cleisthenes, credited with the creation of Athenian democracy, introduced the city council (Boule) to the Bouletic oath, which simply affirmed “to advise according to the laws what was best for the people”. Easier said than done perhaps, because what exactly is “the good of the people”? Still, this small part of Greek political history that we Europeans revere so much, was only short-lived.
Over the centuries more or less democratic cities or nations fade in and out of existence. The true breakthrough of democratic ideals as we know them today happened in the Age of Enlightenment. Great thinkers produced great documents and treaties, expanding the Christian doctrine unto new ground. The American Revolution birthed the oldest surviving and active constitution today. Shortly after, the French National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The path was being laid for a new form of government, and for nation-states and their citizens to take control and responsibility for the dealings of the state. Then followed the tumultuous 19th century, and the bloody first half of the 20th century, which saw Europe emerge from two World Wars with a renewed commitment against authoritarianism. A new Europe and a new Human Rights-based world order blossomed and expanded in scope and reach in the following decades. During the optimistic 90s that followed the fall of the USSR, Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history” which, unfortunately, did not age very well. The 21st century has reminded Europe that democracy is by no means a natural and inevitable political state. The number of democratic countries, for the last decade the Democracy Index has been steadily falling (Economist Democracy Index 2019). What is going on?
Two-and-a half-thousand years after Cleisthenes and his Boule, the question arises: what demos, “common people”, and what kratos, “strength” are we actually talking about? Many critics of democracy seem to agree with Winston Churchill’s famous remark that “no one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The same Winston Churchill also remarked that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” To know the shortcomings and the strengths of democracy we have to take a good look outside and within the EU. We will explore and question the many preconditions that need to exist for democracies to not just function, but flourish. Think of free press, freedom of expression, separation of powers, checks and balances, equality before the law, informed citizenry, fair elections, accountable institutions, transparent government, etc. The mere diminishing of one of these can have great effect on the stability of the entire democratic undertaking. As such, democracy is a very precious and vulnerable project. Hardly anything about democracy is “easy”, as hardly anything is easy about the compromise between “the many” and the “the few”. Today, we find the democratic legitimacy of the EU itself being questioned, leading to renewed European interest in rediscovering what democracy is all about.
An important part of this module therefore concerns not only democracy as a form of political organisation, but also what we might call the “democratic mind-set”. As democrats and citizens, we do not just enjoy the rights of freedom and equality, but are also responsible for the leaders and policies that choose to put in place. Some of us feel obliged to take an even greater responsibility and run for office. Democratic citizenship is not a passive designation, but requires questioning, criticism, openness of mind and spirit, and learning. In this module we unleash our inner democrats, and as citoyens de L’Europe dive into what makes democracy the worst and the best of all that political society can offer us.
Development of Democracy
Parliamentary republics, constitutional monarchies, presidential republics: Europe has no shortage of democratic diversity. What interesting differences are there between democracies? And what reasons compel a country to choose for a constitutional, monarchical, or parliamentary system? Why do some countries use referenda (direct democracy), and others prefer more representative solution? And who de we elect? Why choose to elect mayors, but not judges? The current debate critically raises the question: is democracy adequate to meet the challenges of today? Do the nations of the EU need to reorient towards pan-European political parties, such as Volt? What alternatives are possible? And what interesting democratic ideas can inspire us to find different forms of leadership in the future? Over the course of this theme we do not only look at systems of government, but also at the viability of new and ground-breaking democratic ideas for our own lives, such as deep democracy, a leadership concept that encourages taking into account not just the majority, but all voices.
Origin of European Democracy
Athens is famously the birthplace of democracy. What kind of democracy did the ancient Athenians create? What was the reasoning behind “allowing” a political active citizenry to make decisions? Would that not lead to a “tyranny of the majority”? Athenian democracy not only was far ahead of its time, but also defied contemporary philosophy on good leadership (though it was still distinctly elitist). Aristotle distinguished many forms of government: tyranny, oligarchy, timocracy, aristocracy, and democracy, the latter of which he was highly critical of. Why? And is it true to fact or based on a certain image that we revere Athens as the birthplace of democracy? We exercise our minds and explore the profound philosophical dimensions of each of these forms of government, and the pros and cons of each according to the ancients.
Concept of Democracy
In this theme we explore the concept of Democracy throughout European history. Modern democracy is the product of a long political discourse, starting in Greece, throughout the middle Ages to the Enlightenment, American and French revolutions, to where we are now. In this theme we stop by the great thinkers, events, and the most important works which influenced the world today. Rousseau, Montesquieu, The Social Contract, the Scientific Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (See Appendix A). How do we want to define “democracy”? What basic ingredients, developments, and manifestations can we identify?
Government of the people, by the people, for the people. That is what Abraham Lincoln held his soldiers responsible for in his famous Gettysburg address. Citizens (the people) are the smallest unit of democracy, as was the case in ancient Greek democracy. But what is citizenship? Is it merely the possession of a passport? Who decides what makes a “good democratic citizen”? How to balance rights and duties of the individual and collective responsibility in a healthy balance? And how do we reconcile national and global citizenship in the modern era? This theme is also an excellent way to shed new light on the ongoing migration crisis happening in Greece, and what European citizenship means to people that risk their lives to reach Greek shores. And, for that part, what it means to us, as Europeans, who choose to accept or reject these refugees.
The United States and Europe have been staunch defenders and exporters of democracy worldwide. Not only through political programs (Democracy Support), but also outright military and political intervention. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and many African nations were introduced to democracy by soft or hard exercitations of Western power. How successful have these interventions been? What is the net results of this agressive foreign policy if we “make up the balance”? And what about the many democratisation programs sponsored by Europe? Is democracy something uniquely suited to “Western” culture? What democratic success stories can we find beyond Europe?
Prerequisites of Democracy
In this theme we extend the discussion of “Concept of Democracy” to today. Democracy is more than just the right of citizens to elect their officials. Separation of powers, an independent judiciary, access to justice, independent press, an informed citizenry, lack of corruption, accountable leadership, trust in public institutions: all these are prerequisites of a healthy democracy (some of these themes will be addressed in other modules). And all are under pressure, even in the West. Perhaps they always were, but now we are more aware of it .What are the vulnerabilities of democracy today, and how can we strengthen it?
Fake news: the social media dilemma
The democratic society stand or falls by its ability to discuss ideas, and compromise despite conflicting visions. Over the past years the political climate has in more than a few European nations, perceptibly harshened. Fake news floods the internet, and both business and politics are looking for ways to address the constant flow of misinformation. But who is to decide which facts are true or false? Or can we allow for a more post-modern interpretation in which the truth is neither black nor white? What do non-European parties stand to gain by sowing confusion? How to address this issue without opening the doors for censorship and shutting down necessary discussions as collateral damage? We will discuss the value of guaranteed free and expansive information for democracy.
Democracy: the best of the worst
Allegedly Winston Churchill once described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”. In this theme we explore the power of democracy, contrasting it in a series of conversations with various other forms of government in the world today. The number of democracies worldwide is dwindling. How precious is democracy exactly? Are we fully aware of the benefits and privileges of living in a democratic society? This theme contextualises democracy with the rise of authoritarianism abroad, most notably China. And what about the Islamic/Arabic alternative to democracy? As Europeans we do well to understand the reasoning of our furthest competitors and our not-so-distant neighbours.
Austerity in the Euro Crisis
The austerity measures imposed on Greece by the EU during the Euro Crisis of 2012 elicited a strong response from the Greek public. Initially combative on the strict measures created by their European creditors, Greek politicians such as Gianis Varoufakis soon found themselves with no alternative but to dance to the tune of the ECB. Public regard of the EU, Greek politicians and the IMF fell to an all-time low. Many Greeks felt that not their vote, but German banks decided the fate of the Greek economy. Was this true? Did technocracy start to supersede democratic ideals? And what does this mean for the democratic ideals of Europe? Furthermore, what are the risks to democracy of bad management on the European level and lack of accountability?
Recently, the Greek supreme court ruled that the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” party guilty of being a criminal organisation. Neo-Nazism is on the rise in the West. Did we not bury this form of fascism after the second World War? Why and how can such movements emerge in e free and democratic European society? Not just in Greece, but in Germany too? Having explored the dangers of fascism and authoritarianism in the previous module (Human Dignity), we now engage with political experts and (perhaps) members from both the Golden Dawn and Syriza to discuss this hot issue.
The Cultural Language of Democracy
Furthermore, democracy has a distinctly different architectural and cultural feel to it than, say, fascism. Who does not recognize the famous columns which adorn so many of the great institutions of the countries of Europe. Not just thinkers, but artists, sculptors, painters and poets have always looked back at Greece, bosom of European civilization, for inspiration. What is the secret behind the almost “eternal” quality of the Greek image? What about its temples, its agora’s, its gymnasia, has us still, to this day, reuse the same qualities in the layouts of our parliaments, courts, and schools? What other translations of democratic language do we use in Europe’s urban planning?
DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF MAN – 1789
Approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789
“The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all. Therefore the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:
 If you have an hour to spare, the following BBC episode of “Inside Europe, 10 years of Turmoil: Going Broke” is excellent infotainment: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x71uzph