Democracy in Europe is Being Reconsidered From Top To Bottom

With a weakened Germany after recent elections, limits on France’s hopes for further European integration, secessionist tensions in Spain, and democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, democracy seems incapable of addressing current issues in Europe. We asked Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Barnard college and an expert in European politics, about the challenges that democracy faces in the Old Continent.

Sheri Berman
June 22, 2018

Journal of International Affairs: We are going to focus on the state of democracy in Europe. In Germany, Angela Merkel has renewed her term, but it will be the first time with an extreme right party in the Bundestag after the Second World War. How can this impact the European context?

Sheri Berman: The fragmentation in Europe has now hit Germany, its most stable country. It is a country that is doing economically fairly well, that is politically very powerful, and that has a past that many thought would have inoculated them against extremism. But even here we are seeing the kind of instability and right-wing populism that is taking place in the rest of Europe.

The German case is very interesting as a reflection of these general trends in Europe. We will see whether Merkel can pull off this coalition [with the Christian Social Union (CSU) and Free Democratic Party (FDP)] and whether she can use this coalition to begin re-stabilizing German politics, making enough voters convinced that the government is actually working for them, in order to turn them away from the extremes.


JIA: How much impact does Alternative fur Deutschland (AFD) actually have? They will not be part of the coalition but having them in politics must change the scenario somehow.

SB: That is right. Even when a party doesn’t join a government, it can have an incredible impact, for example, through agenda setting. Merkel recognizes now that she needs to be more forthright with the immigration question, at the very least because it threatens to split her own party from its historic sister party, the CSU.

AFD’s success has also made her aware of the fact that there is this incredible discontent that she had hoped to sweep under the carpet. She had the hope that her party and the FDP alone would have enough votes, which would have made arranging a coalition much easier, but the AFD pulled too many votes for her to be able to do that.


JIA: How can the success of this right-wing party impact politics at the European level?SB: Merkel has been by far the key figure in European politics and in dealing with EU issues over the last years. She is going to be significantly weakened. She is going to have to spend more time managing her own coalition, and she is going to have less freedom of maneuver than she would have had, had her party done really well. This, for instance, is shown by the fact that she has either pushed out or asked to move to a new place her long standing finance minister Schaeuble.

SB: Schaeuble is an interesting figure, because he is both very pro-European and very pro-austerity politics. There had been hope that Merkel would push Schaeuble out and replace him with someone more amenable to the kinds of things that French president Emmanuel Macron, for instance, is pushing for. But it is not going to happen, because the person who is going to get that spot now will come from the FDP. While that person will also be a pro-European, he/she will be absolutely against spending German taxpayer money to profit southerners or passing that money over to the control of the EU.

A lot of the things Macron had hoped would happen will be more difficult now. This will be both because Merkel is weaker and because she will be constrained by her coalition partners. Macron and other Europeans would have much preferred either a very strong Merkel or a Social Democratic Party (SDP) government, which is much more willing to move forward with all kinds of European policies. So, the rise of the AFD will affect Europe through the kinds of policies Germany will be able to pursue at the European level.


JIA: One of the dilemmas that national governments of EU member states confront is that they have to choose between following what is decided at the EU level or following the desires of the citizens. How does this affect the state of democracy?

SB: A lot of citizens’ dissatisfaction with democracy in Europe relates to that. Citizens are concerned that their governments are not making policy by what they [the citizens] want, but doing so as a result of dictates that have been passed down by European bureaucrats or leaders outside their country. Anything that furthers the idea that a policy is not responsive to national citizens, that it is being pushed on them from outside their borders, will continue to spur this dissatisfaction with democracy. This is why democratizing the European Union more is so central. As long as you have this supranational organization that is not seen as democratic and responsive, but as forcing governments to do what it says, this tension between people in nation states and the European Union will not disappear.


JIA: In the previous question, we were discussing pressures to states from above, but states also receive pressures from below, with increasing nationalistic sentiments around Europe. How can the EU deal with nationalistic tensions, such as the ones we have seen in Catalonia?

SB: The Catalonia issue is very interesting, both from the Spanish and the European context. From the Spanish context, you have this conflict that has developed over national sovereignty, constitutionalism, and democracy. There is little doubt that on the constitutional issues, the central Spanish government has the argument on its side: the Catalans agreed on the Spanish Constitution, and over 90 percent voted for it. In this Constitution, there is no provision for this kind of referendum, and the referendum itself was pushed through in an undemocratic manner.

This might explain why the Catalans have little support from the outside—not just from Europe, but from other European leaders. It is very hard to make a case for Catalonia as an oppressed area. This is not [Iraqi] Kurdistan. However, there is something odd from a broader democratic perspective. If a certain group of people want to vote to think about what kind of state they live in, that should be part of a broader concept of democracy. The problem comes when deciding what the right rules for it are, how the people within the preexisting country have their rights respected, and also, when you live in a diverse place like Catalonia, whether you want to decide questions of existential importance, such as what country we arepart of, by a 50+1 percent calculation of the population.

It is a really interesting question because it brings up how in an ever changing world we are supposed to deal with questions about identity, borders, and sovereignty. For the EU, this is a real problem because it doesn’t want to be seen as encouraging this constant fragmentation. It raises questions about democracy, about Europe, and about who belongs to Europe, whether it is a collection of nation-states or a collection of a larger group of people.

It is also a fascinating political game that leaders of both sides have played really badly. They’ve pushed themselves into corners that are now very difficult to get out of. This is a classic case where playing to your core constituencies has made it much more difficult to reach a compromise.


JIA: At this point, some people still argue that a referendum could bring a solution. But are referenda a useful tool to take these kind of decisions?

SB: Referenda in the abstract are democratic: you go straight to the people to ask their opinion on a question. But they are incredibly problematic for precisely that reason: they tend to be about very important questions. Do I want to be a part of Spain or not? Do I want to be a part of the European Union? The idea that those kinds of things should be taken by majority decision is in itself problematic. The reason why we have constitutions in democracies or the Bill of Rights in the US is because there are some things that are so important, so necessary to make society function, that we are not going to allow them to be decided by the short-term whims of the people. We need to have this extra consideration.

On the one hand, the idea that you would decide on something crucial through referenda is that it is so important that people should decide it. On the other hand, making a decision on a majoritarian basis or on short-term calculations, such as “I am angry because we had a financial crisis and I am paying more taxes,” is also very problematic. So referenda are a mixed bag. That is why, for issues of long-standing impact, it strikes me as very problematic.


JIA: The last question is very broad: what is the state of democracy in Europe?

SB: We are in a period in which we are questioning democracy. This does not happen only in places like Turkey, Hungary, or Poland, where people are actually questioning whether they want a democracy or something else, some kind of authoritarian populism. People in established democracies are also thinking that the form of democracy they had until now has not been able to fully address some of their concerns. For this reason, we need to think about revitalizing our institutions, our political parties, our political leaders. They have not been doing a great job.

We are in a critical juncture when we are re-examining how democracy should function, what kinds of questions should be decided by which mechanisms, and what decisions should be taken at the European level as opposed to the national level. Democracy is being reconsidered from top to bottom.