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Europe’s Eroding Democracies

Window to democracy? Photo: mr.beutel/flickr

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy index 2011, democracy throughout the world has once again come under stress in 2011. If the EIU has got it right, 48 countries have become less democratic, compared to 41 that were able to increase their democracy score. This might come as a surprise to those who expected a rather different outcome due to the effect which Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites supposedly have on freedom of expression – but that is another story.

There were, of course, regional differences in this wider downward trend. It is just that this time around, some of the regions that were best known for their democratic underperformance and stagnation have become more democratic while “taken-for-granted” democracies have started to backslide in recent years.

The encouraging news is that the waves of protest that rocked the Arab world in 2011 seem to have had a positive effect on democracy, at least in some countries. Tunisia in particular, the country with the highest increase in its democracy score in 2011, changed its regime type from ‘authoritarian’ to ‘hybrid’ (the EIU report distinguishes four types of political regime: ‘full democracies’, ‘flawed democracies’, ‘hybrid regimes’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’). While uprisings are still ongoing in other countries of the MENA region, and while the path to democracy remains a stony one, there nevertheless is further potential for more democratic change in the months and years ahead. Many Sub-Saharan African countries have also scored higher on the latest EIU democracy index than in the previous year.

Europe, on the other hand, suffered a further setback in its democracy score. France, Italy and Greece, for example, were already downgraded from ‘full democracy’ to ‘flawed democracy’ status in 2010. And in 2011, Portugal followed suit. Although there has already been much talk about a ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union, to me at least it seems slightly more worrying if the change to the worse is not only a perceived (and debated) one but has actually been measured. Are the causes of the recent setbacks to be found in the economic crisis, an unaccountable EU-Bureaucracy, or maybe somewhere else?

According to the EIU, the economic/sovereign debt crisis did take its toll on democracy, namely because of an “erosion in sovereignty and democratic accountability associated with the effects of and responses to the euro zone crisis”. This includes, for example, the replacement of two elected prime ministers with technocrats in Italy and Greece. Likewise, a closely related thing that has little to do with democratic decision making is that Germany and France are mainly setting the terms of reform for all other euro zone countries. The debate on whether the crisis is an excuse for technocratic government is still ongoing. Yet despite numerous austerity measures that have already been adopted by Greece, its severe recession has been getting… worse.

A notable exception is Iceland, which experienced a catastrophic economic collapse in 2008 but was able to maintain the second highest EIU democracy score – just after the world’s democracy champion, Norway – in both 2010 and 2011. In light of this example, it seems that ‘economic necessity’ need not always trump democracy.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was busy replacing the country’s constitution with one that suits his national-conservative party, Fidesz,  much better than the previous, much more liberal one. The changes that the new constitution brings (e.g. severe restrictions to the Constitutional Court’s responsibility) are so dramatic that observers see it as nothing less but a slide into authoritarianism. The new constitution took effect on 1 January 2012. As such, Hungary might just have become the EU’s first authoritarian member state.

There certainly are other factors that also contributed to the general trend of eroding democracy in Europe, and it is not clear whether this negative trend is partly temporary or not. However, it may be wiser not to think things will sort themselves out automatically – after all, 2011 was not the first year in which democracy has been on the way down in Europe.

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