Richard Youngs on the Resilience of Democracy

Richard Youngs in conversation with Michal Matlak about citizens’ attitudes towards democracy, transformative power of protests movements, citizens’ assemblies as well as democratic innovations on the European level. 

Michal Matlak: Democratic backsliding is one of the most important subjects of your last book, “Rebuilding European Democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age” (Bloomsbury/Tauris, 2021). Do you think that this authoritarian shift that you’re writing about is linked with a change of attitudes within European societies and perhaps a move towards more authoritarian values, or if it is a dissatisfaction with the quality of political institutions and not with democracy itself. Also, can we distinguish between dissatisfaction with democracy and dissatisfaction with liberalism?

Richard Youngs: Basic political dynamics are quite different across different European states. We have got used to talking in quite dramatic terms about democracy’s crisis, the collapse of democracy, democratic regression, potential democratic deconsolidation across Europe in recent years. I think this kind of dramatic picture clearly fits some European states, but it doesn’t fit others. In some states levels of democratic quality have held relatively constant. In most, the decline in democratic quality has been modest and the reasons for these different political trajectories are different across the different European states.

Of course, in the most dramatic and most covered states, cases like Hungary and Poland, we have a situation where we have illiberal governments, who harness popular dissatisfaction. So, the politics and the social trends are moving almost in lock step together. In other cases, in fact, it’s mainstream, non-populist governments chipping away at civil rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law that account for the declines in democratic quality.

Trends in social views are different across Europe as well. Here, the polling data can be read in different ways.

There are not uniform signs of a loss of faith in democracy, or profound dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working. I think it’s equally as important and interesting to try and understand and account for the factors of democratic resilience as well –

why democratic quality has not completely collapsed, at least in many or most European states. In a way, why, despite the many predictions that democracy has been on the brink of collapsing for many years, democracy in most European countries has mainly resisted. And in fact, and this is the focus of the book, in some ways many actors have begun to rejuvenate and revive the way democracy is practiced.

We’ll talk about democratic renewal, but I wanted to ask one more question about the crisis of democracy. There are various groups of scholars analyzing democratic backsliding. Some of them tend to agree that the illiberal systems of Central Europe, are essentially democratic even if they are illiberal. There are others who say that if they are illiberal, they cannot be democratic. I wanted to ask what would be your take on this in this debate?

I’m not sure we’re faced with such a stark choice between democratic illiberalism or undemocratic liberalism. There are certainly major tensions between the democratic and the liberal strands of liberal democracy.

Many of the governments that have taken on liberalism or criticize liberalism are the ones whose democracy scores have also worsened the most dramatically.

In most cases, government assault on liberalism and liberal values isn’t really carried out in a way that deepens democracy. There are clearly different strands of liberalism. It depends on whether one is talking about political, economic, social, or cultural liberalism, I think each strand of liberalism has a slightly different relationship with democracy and democratic quality.

Rather than positing this absolute clash between liberalism on the one hand and democracy on the other hand, I think the challenge is rather a more subtle one of many formal government or EU efforts to defend or improve democracy being carried out in a way that’s a little bit controlled and managerial and top-down, out of a fear of there being a challenge to a kind of broadly liberal status quo. These reform methods may be well intentioned, but they may inadvertently be narrowing the kind of vibrancy of pluralism that one needs for a true, far-reaching democratic renewal. I think in that sense, we see a certain clash between democracy or democratic pluralism and liberalism in the way that democratic renewal is being carried out.

One of the chapters of your book is devoted to the massive social protests in various European countries. Do you think that these protests, and the rejuvenation of civil society more generally, are one of the ways to renew our democracies and to strengthen democracies? Do you think that they might play such a positive role, even if we don’t see its translation to political change?

The book argues that such direct-action protest should be considered as one necessary part of a broader democratic renewal. Clearly there are many protests that failed, that have not met their objectives. I mean, certainly in Poland and Hungary, many years of protests self-evidently failed to overturn or correct authoritarian dynamics.

I wouldn’t say protests have been completely ineffective, however, across Europe. In some cases, it seems to me, they have had some effect, certainly in pushing governments to implement certain policy changes.

Protests may not change the whole political system in a very dramatic sense, but I think if one looks at Romania, Malta, maybe Bulgaria, they may have acted as a kind of brake on corruption or certain antidemocratic trends. In countries like Italy in Spain, they’ve been a background factor that contributed to political change as well.

I understand there’s a lot of criticism that protests are not very effective. That they can be a bit disparate and not lead into very well-targeted, well-thought-out political change, and I do share some of that criticism, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I wouldn’t dismiss these protests as being completely unhelpful, irrelevant for democratic renewal, even where protests fail to achieve dramatic political change. I think it’s important to remember that if one looks at the experience of previous waves of democratic transition protests, even in the best of cases, rarely succeed against repressive regimes. The lesson from previous transitions is that this kind of direct change happens when you get this direct mobilization and agency of citizens, combining with a deeper structural change as well.

The standard criticism against protest movements is that they fail to move from the street into politics. The book identifies a few cases where in fact this has happened – protest movements have gone into mainstream politics. They have fashioned much more targeted and coherent reform agendas. They built bridges and alliances with other actors – such as in Romania, Italy or Spain, for example.

One of the sources of possible democratic renewal, apart from social protest and civil society organizations are, according to your book, citizen assemblies. You present a broad overview of citizens assemblies in various countries, including Ireland, Spain, France, and many other countries. How can they be related to the classic parliamentary democracy? Shouldn’t the tasks of citizen assemblies be fulfilled by the classic parliaments? Do these assemblies really bring something new?

They do bring something new, and I think they’re complimentary to parliamentary channels of democratic accountability. I think there’s basically a strong consensus on that and the fact that these forms of citizens assemblies are growing in importance. This is probably the area of most dynamic and exciting change and experimentation in democratic politics over the last decade. It is now a very well-established community of practice and of analysis, and it’s clearly set to grow.

It’s probably the most significant contribution in recent years to this incipient spirit of democratic renewal across Europe. At the same time, my book argues that we must be a little bit careful not to oversell the potential of these kinds of assemblies.  While they’re very, very valuable in and of their own right, they don’t yet engage really huge numbers of citizens. Many of them have agendas that are still tightly controlled by governments.

They do have some drawbacks as well. They’re good and effective in relation to many policy issues, but they’re not necessarily the right vehicles for dealing with all political issues, particularly some of the more divisive and polarizing issues that exist on the political agenda.

It’s rather unfair expecting too much of these kinds of assemblies to solve all the big macro political problems that affect a European democracy. There’s a lot of work being done to improve the methodology by which these assemblies have been run across European in recent years. They have credibility. They have legitimacy. They are serving a purpose. Today, there’s a very committed community of practitioners and experts now constantly fine-tuning the way these assemblies work. The main point I make in the book is that now, in the next phase of these assemblies, it seems to me the real key is how they relate to these wider democratic trends and debates.

Would you be able to give our listeners some examples of successful citizens’ assemblies?

Ireland is normally cited as the champion, as the leader in these kinds of assemblies. I mean, this is a very old point now, but the way Ireland designed its processes was very sophisticated and linked together with different levels of democratic politics, the assemblies with the parliament, and civil society organizations as well. Another one that’s very promising is what’s called the East Belgian model in the German-speaking part of Belgium, which seems to put all these linkages together as well in a very sophisticated design.

The jury’s probably still out on the French climate assembly. It clearly has galvanized a debate over climate action in France. It has got many interesting reforms on the agenda into parliament, onto the government’s list of commitments. But at the same time the participants in the assembly themselves have expressed frustration that their most ambitious or far-reaching proposals have been blocked by the government. So, for the moment at least, I think judgment is still awaited on that.

The broader point I make in the book is that after many years of efforts to develop these kinds of assemblies, the number of these assemblies being run across Europe is still relatively modest. The numbers are growing in a small number of member states, but in many states these kinds of assemblies are still pretty few and far between, and we haven’t yet got to the stage where they represent a continual, regularized, mainstream part of democratic politics. They’re still used as useful complements to the standard process of democratic politics for particular issues. They haven’t necessarily mainstreamed a whole dynamic of better-quality deliberation within democracy itself.

How are these assemblies constructed? Is it a random selection?

Yes, they’re mostly selected by means of random selection, and that’s one of the issues where the methodology has improved significantly in recent years. The way these innovations are carried out methodologically is very robust and rigorous today. A lot of the doubts that were being expressed by these forms of deliberation a decade ago I think are no longer fair today because they have improved so dramatically.

We shouldn’t reduce this debate just to the issue of these mini publics or deliberative forums. Key to my argument is that these are extremely valuable experiments, but that other areas of democratic change have to be approached as being of equal importance.

And these other areas change, for example the sphere of party politics, are not keeping pace. In current debates they’re perhaps getting a little bit displaced from the agenda by the attention that’s been given to deliberation, citizens’ assemblies, and the likes. And we shouldn’t forget that and neglect these other areas of democratic politics that need to be revived with equal urgency.

Do you see common traits of the transformation of the party systems in various European countries? Can we single out a couple of trends that are visible in many European countries?

The two trends that I think are worthy of mention is that there are many more efforts amongst democratic reformers, democratic parties, to form coalitions against illiberal populist threats to democracy. Of course, this is a very, very old debate going back decades, whether it’s more effective to include or engage with populist or far right parties, or whether it’s better to isolate them.

In practice, we’ve seen more parties making a strategic choice to form broader alliances in order to try and push back against illiberal populists. Of course, this is very relevant today to what’s going on in Hungary, but that’s simply one case amongst many. Previous rivalries between political parties have been set aside and alliances have been formed.

The other trend is the emergence of these newer kinds of political parties. They appear at different parts of the political spectrum. They’re parties basically formed around an agenda explicitly of democratic renewal. They’re parties that promise to bring in some of the spirit of social movements, popular mobilization, and direct citizen action into the sphere of political parties. It seems to me that’s a very significant trend. Examples of these kinds of parties appeared in most European countries, even where the electoral systems are quite different.

But I think the overarching conclusion there in relation to the sphere of party politics is that we have two twin dangers. I would say one danger is clearly the danger of the surging support for new illiberal parties. That’s the part of the equation that’s received the most attention over recent years, but I think

an equal danger is of mainstream parties, the liberal democratic parties, colluding more and more to defend their own positions, to head off a change to party systems that would actually make those party systems more responsive to citizens. So, I think democratic renewal would need to tread a fine path between those twin dangers that exist in party systems.

If we may move now to the European level, because we observe various democratic exercises also in the UN in Brussels. The most meaningful in the last month is of course the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Conference is of course still ongoing, and it will last until April next year, if I’m not mistaken. I wanted to ask you about your take on this conference. Do you think that it can change and deepen the democratic legitimacy of the European project, or we should we not expect too much after this exercise?

I certainly think it has the potential to contribute to a certain democratic legitimization of the European project. It’s not going to democratize the EU in and of itself. This conference doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s one of several moves towards more citizen participation at the EU level in recent years. There’ve been quite a few initiatives piloted, tried out at the EU level that do seem to open up the potential for a slightly more open and participative model of European politics.

The conference is the latest in the step of a whole series of moves over the last five or six years. The way the conference has been designed is promising. It’s more open and participative than any other previous exercise in EU reform has been. It’s still tentative, however. As you know, there are whole series of citizen panels and a digital platform in operation. These are not yet finished. We don’t know exactly what their results will be, but they’ve, clearly at the EU level now, harnessed some of the experiences in the citizen’s assemblies and other forms of deliberation at the national level within member states that we were just talking about.

It seems to me these panels have been designed also in a very thorough and sophisticated way. The design is very good. Of course, the big question is whether government will listen to and take on board what citizens are suggesting through these panels.

It’s not clear yet, and I would argue this is the big question, whether the conference itself and the participative elements of the conference will just be a one-off, or if they were leading to kind of permanent changes in participation at the European level.

They also recognize the need for more permanent forum or initiative of citizen participation once the conference is finished. So, I think it’s extremely valuable that all these issues are on the agenda, but for now it’s not clear how far this kind of reforms and long-term change will materialize.

Clearly, the conference needs more momentum. It needs more visibility, and it needs more political buy-in. So far, it’s been rather low key and probably fallen below expectations.

But again we shouldn’t expect too much from the Conference. The Conference is not going to solve all the EU’s democratic problems, but it can be harnessed, I think as one useful step towards galvanizing a kind of ethos or spirit of more citizen participation at the European level.

What role can the EU play in the democratic renewal in the Member States?

The suggestion I make in the book is that the EU could play quite a valuable role in setting itself up as a kind of institutional umbrella. To try and link together all these other areas of democratic renewal and resistance that we’ve just been talking about and that the book unpacks at the national, local, and community level, and so on and so forth.

There’s a lot going on in terms of democratic experimentation at many different levels. And one feels that the agenda of EU reform is still a little bit disconnected from all these other areas of dynamism and innovation going on at the national and sub-national level. It seems to me that’s a lost opportunity and the EU could perhaps think of itself in slightly different terms, and rather trying to measure itself against standards of democratic quality or accountability that exist at the national level.

Trying to think in a rather qualitatively different way of trying to bring out or maximize the political impact of all these other areas of activity going on around the EU and trying to give it a kind of protective umbrella, given that many of these areas of democratic innovation are facing quite stiff resistance, even intimidation, from many European governments. So, they need this kind of support and backing from the EU-level, I would argue.

Thank you very much.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos

*Richard Youngs – a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy. Youngs is also a professor of international relations at the University of Warwick. Prior to joining Carnegie in July 2013, he was the director of the European think tank FRIDE. He has held positions in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as an EU Marie Curie fellow. He was a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC, from 2012 to 2013. Youngs has authored fifteen books. His most recent works are Rebuilding European Democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age (Bloomsbury/Tauris, 2021), The European Union and Global Politics (Macmillan, 2021), Civic Activism Unleashed: New Hope or False Dawn for Democracy? (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Europe’s Eastern Crisis: The Geopolitics of Asymmetry (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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