Judy Asks: Can Europe Defend Democracy?

European democracy faces threats from both within and outside. To counter them, Europe needs leaders who are serious about upholding democratic values and addressing citizens’ grievances.

No doubt, Europe can—and should—defend democracy. Yet, two things are crucial: that Europe be not alone and that it goes beyond merely defending democracy as is.

Especially in today’s fraught international order, it is crucial that democracy as government of, for, and by the people is something that humans around the world can strive for and achieve. That freedom, justice, and, ultimately, prosperity can only be gained in a democratic setting, however imperfect it may be. That there isn’t anything inherently Western, or indeed Western-only, about the entire concept. And that international rules, just like domestic ones, are there for everyone to follow, in countries big and small.

This points to the need for a renewal rather than merely a defense of democracy. It’s not just authoritarian powers that threaten democracies, but also politicians’ complacency with the system’s workings, compounded by citizens’ own careless use of technology, including social media.

Leaders at all levels should strive to innovate political participation, whether through community organizing, local budgeting, or citizens’ involvement in policy deliberation. Governments need to overhaul their service delivery, cognizant that public administration in the digital era will have to be different from the past half-century. And finally, such a renewal should build upon—and learn from—the democratic experiences elsewhere in the world.

If Europe wants to pride itself of being the birthplace of democracy, it means that it bears special responsibility for its defense. Democracy’s long-term thriving, however, can only be achieved by making all voices heard, and count.

Yes, it can. There are two dimensions to the answer.

First, there are the numbers. Currently, the far right commands between a fifth and a third of the electorate in countries where the extreme parties have a shot at reaching office. To keep them from forming governing coalitions, the rest of the democratic space must unite in refusing to share power. A telling example was the recent election in Poland where the far-right Law and Justice (PiS) garnered the plurality vote, but the united opposition won the majority after coordinated refusal to cooperate with the winner.

The second dimension relates to what Judy Dempsey called “defense of the democratic way of life.” Europe has taught itself a historical lesson in the costs of democratic backsliding. Fascism, Nazism, and Communism are all its legacies. Democratic parties must not tire of reminding voters of these dangers. The same goes for interpreting the future. The non-democratic Europe of tomorrow might look like the Russia, China, or Iran of today.

Beijing and Moscow will not step back from probing for weakness in Europe’s political landscape to gain influence. Almost everywhere these soft spots reside on the far right of the spectrum. The center parties should keep pointing fingers at the obvious connection.

This European Commission has taken a number of steps to defend democracy within Europe, particularly online. This should be commended, although many of the initiatives—transparency of political advertising, European media freedom act, funding of European political parties—will not be in effect before the European Parliament elections in spring. The rule-of-law conditionality mechanism was also a vital step forward in European attempts to defend democracy that is now put into question by the recent decision to unfreeze funds due to Hungarian blackmail on funding for Ukraine.

All of this shows that Europe can take steps to defend democracy but that political and institutional realities often mean that good intentions do not have the desired impact. It certainly doesn’t help that the new Defence of Democracy package features a highly controversial directive on foreign interference which is likely to hurt democracy more than help.

Europe has done much less to defend democracy outside its borders—in places like Tunisia, the Sahel, or Armenia, frequently placing other priorities above democratic values. It can certainly be argued that European support for Ukraine and Moldova are precisely about defending democracy, but the lack of consistency is glaring. It points to the fact that when democracy comes into collision with other strategic priorities like security, migration, or trade, it is invariably relegated to playing second or third fiddle. And those strategic priorities look to be rising in political importance.

Yes, it can, but no, Europe isn’t doing what it can to defend democracy. EU leaders fret endlessly over whether or not Donald Trump will be back in the White House after U.S. election this year. And there are constant warnings about the perils of foreign interference and external attempts to destabilize European democracies. There is very little introspection, however, on how quickly European democracies are withering from within and how best to put Europe’s house in order.

Even as Italy’s hard-right Prime Minister Georgia Meloni emerges as one of the EU’s most influential leaders, hundreds of demonstrators were able to give a banned fascist salute at a Rome rally without any police intervention or European condemnation. In the Netherlands, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders is being normalized as the country’s (possible) next prime minister. And there are very credible predictions that far-right, anti-EU populist parties will gain even more seats across the continent in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The impressive public turnout against the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD’s) “remigration” plan is one positive demonstration that some EU leaders’ dormant democratic instinct can come to life—sometimes. But what is really missing from Europe’s political landscape are leaders who are upfront, vocal, and sincere about defending authentic European values of democracy and human rights, and are ready to seriously tackle poverty, inequality, exclusion, and discrimination, issues that ordinary folk really care about.

By sidestepping these key concerns, European politicians are allowing anti-democratic forces to divide rather than unite Europeans and facilitating the erosion of democracy from within.

“We want to dare more democracy,” then German chancellor Willy Brandt told the Bundestag in Bonn in 1969. And it is because he did dare that he was able to see the Berlin Wall fall in 1989. As we succumb to the notion that the post–World War Two period was a peaceful interlude of democracy and that the era of empires is back, we actually relinquish our faith in what Europe has already achieved. We belittle the original vision and erode our joint responsibility to sustain it.

The EU is the only collective project still standing, still capable of giving Judy’s question a genuine shot. Unfortunately, there’s a more depressing question preventing it from rising to the task: Who will be daring enough to organize the defense and then lead the charge? Our current crop of leaders is a mix of passionless administrators of process. Some timid, others compromised, most unable to trust each other enough to unite behind the cause. At least, encouragingly, scattered across parliamentary benches, in grassroot social movements, in front-line NGOs and media, in the German and Polish cities that rose against fascism, new leaders are emerging with a passion and an urgency worthy of Jean Monnet, Jacques Delors, and Willy Brandt.

There are several issues at play in this question.

First, it is how we understand democracy. Despite its longue durée, democracy today is more contested than ever before. This is because, inter alia, our understanding of it also evolves with time. If before we saw it mainly as a linear progression toward (or backsliding from) telos—essentially a Western-style liberal democracy, today we see it as an open, complex system, uncertain and unpredictable, entailing emergence—often hidden under the surface—and relationality, with the human agency (not institutions!) at the heart of the process.

This helps explain sudden protests across Europe—for example, Tunisia in 2023 or Belarus in 2020-21—which may seem spontaneous but in truth are owed to a long grinding process of community relations-building. To support these fledgling initiatives, diverse in their visions of “the good life,” is a challenge, especially for the EU with its positivist agenda and a solutionist toolkit.

Second, who are the stakeholders of this process? It is clearly not the institutions or the state, but the human agency, autonomous and opposite-to-vulnerable, as we are led to believe.

Finally, what is Europe? I argue Europe can defend democracy if it learns to diversify, to be creative, agile, and more trusting in its peoples, in their self-organization in search of “the life worth living.” This, however, is a big ask, requiring an overhaul of the entire system, which the EU fears the most.

The best way for Europe to defend democracy is to provide the necessary assistance to Ukraine in its struggle against authoritarian and imperialistic Russia. It is no coincidence that enemies of democracy are almost always Russia’s friends. Far-right and radical-left movements that seek to destroy constitutional democracies act in unison with Vladimir Putin’s regime, which is happy to support them. Pushing back against Russian aggression and disinformation is therefore a crucial part of defending democracy in Europe.

Even the ostensibly anti-Russian Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland made a political U-turn on Ukraine in the runup to the 2023 election, in a vain effort to attract far-right voters. PiS’s defeat may serve as a valuable lesson to Europe about defending democracy. Democratic groupings won the election despite the rigged electoral system largely thanks to the incredible mobilization of civil society organizations that encouraged high electoral turnout, especially among young people and women, whose vote was crucial for the democrats’ victory.

At the same time thousands of citizens engaged in monitoring the electoral process to in the polling stations, while civic organizations campaigned for a citizens’ boycott of the government-ordered populist referendum held on the election date. Finally, democratic parties and their leaders focused their campaigns on PiS authoritarianism and incompetence while maintaining good relations among themselves, despite competing for voters’ support.

The new Polish government now faces a monumental task of mending public institutions demolished over the past eight years while observing the principles of democracy and the rule of law. Civil society, empowered by its role in the election, needs to participate in this process of democratic renewal but also keep a watchful eye on the new government’s actions.

One focus of European leaders must be the growing threats to democratic values coming from outside.

Take Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is not only a war on Ukraine and the Ukrainians, it is clearly a vehicle to attack European and Western democracies in a systematic way, using multiple means, from governmental narrative to sheer lies, from hacking to buying influence among Western European political parties and governments. Financial links with some European extreme-right parties have been documented.

Take Turkey’s claim that EU accession is the ultimate goal of its foreign policy while the country’s constitutional reform of 2017 and its implementation after the 2018 and 2023 presidential elections has produced a governance system that is the exact opposite of what is needed to become an EU member. It is either one or the other.

Similarly, the global narrative about the “decline” of the Western world and an “emerging new world order” questions democratic values. Beyond proclamations and the enlargement of the BRICS club, what characterizes this new order is the multiplication of armed conflicts—in Sahel, the Red Sea, Syria—with support from regimes such as Iran or Russia.

Reducing the political influence of Western democratic powers may be a common goal for a number of countries, but fanning the flames of regional conflicts will not in itself produce a “new order,” let alone stability and prosperity for peoples. The multiplication of terrorist attacks in the Sahel or the wrecking of Syria’s human and economic fabric are cases in point.

Europe is right in defending democratic values.

Europe is confronted with a number of external and internal threats to democracy. To some extent these are interconnected. The unholy alliance between Russia and radical populist parties on the right and left is one of the major threats to European democracy and security. Recent mass protests in Germany against the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party suggest that many citizens do recognize the threat and are willing to defend democracy.

European countries and the EU have the means to counter this threat by exposing Russian disinformation and support to populist parties, improving media literacy, especially among the younger generation, and investing in strategic communication. Freedom of the media, judiciary, academia, and NGOs is also essential and hard to restore once it has been systematically deconstructed, as the situation in Poland shows.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is recognizing and addressing home-grown reasons for the rise of radical populists. Domestic weaknesses are magnified and exploited by malign external actors. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States is a warning example. European states are probably better equipped to maintain societal cohesion and limit polarization than the United States. The far-right and far-left populists do not form a coherent group, which weakens their impact.

I suggest reformulating the question: Can Europe’s citizens defend democracy? Do citizens of Europe’s diverse political, social, and economic realities have the same perception of democracy and its benefits? Does defending democracy imply defending institutions or values?

Pre–1989 democracies boast solid institutions but fail to uphold all democratic values; post–1989 democracies must defend institutions and values. However, democratic stability is not guaranteed anywhere. It is only a question of degree and starting points.

Democracy is attacked on multiple fronts: when far-right parties spread hate and undermine institutions, when fear of terrorist attacks permeates, when women’s rights are violated, when anti-Semitism rises, when Islamophobia spreads, when LGBTQ+ rights are questioned; when the wealth gap increases; when opponents’ views are demonized; when speech and press freedoms are suppressed. All these phenomena occur in Europe. Some are apparent; others are hidden. Hypocrisy reigns.

Europe has experienced numerous crises recently, be they economic or related to security, health, climate, or migration. None has been fully resolved. Each generated an avalanche of information, conspiracies, fake news, and myriads of opinions which fragmented and polarized populations. The wars in Gaza and Ukraine have further deepened political and ethnic divides.

Which European politician offers a clear vision of the continent’s democratic future? Can citizens defend democracy on their own? Those who protest the advance of the far right are guided by the rejection of its ideas rather than by a specific democratic project.

Europe certainly should and must defend democracy by mobilizing its civic, political, and institutional resources to impede the erosion of the democratic political culture. Can it be done when the siren songs of the far right seem so appealing to an increasing number of voters?

Democracy in modern times has been fought for in the streets and through institutions. It has never been delivered on a silver platter. The only way democracy can be defended is by continuing the relentless struggle to uphold it. Are we seeing enough of a political and institutional resistance to the rise of the far right? People are in the streets are clearly voicing their concern.

The multiple crises—and in particular the migration crisis—that have buffeted European societies over the past decade and a half, the uncertainty about the future of work, and the decline in standards of living coupled with the rising income inequality have led to fears for the future. The far right is riding the wave of these fears. And governments have not adequately responded to them.

Russia and China will use every means to expose the weakness of democracy and of Europe.

Politicians, civic leaders, and citizens need to respond to these existential fears—whether real or not—with concrete, convincing policy proposals at both national and European levels.

The evil of history—fascism and Nazism—which Europe knows all too well is no longer lurking in the shadows. It is rearing its ugly head. Opposing the possible return of that evil is imperative and can be done through solidarity and political and civic mobilization.

2024 has been dubbed as a testing year for democracy worldwide. In the EU, around 400 million citizens will be heading to the polls to elect their European Parliament representatives. This process is expected to result in a political shift to the far right. Meanwhile, in the United States, the potential re-election of Donald Trump threatens the sole existence of the multilateral system and further jeopardizes democratic values.

Against this backdrop, the EU has a long and winding road ahead. Firstly, it needs to effectively address societal grievances. The cost-of-living crisis, inflation, and growing insecurity prompted disillusionment among citizens, eroding faith in the democratic system. The EU and its member states have often been unable to successfully address these grievances, which were then leveraged by far right and/or populist parties.

The union needs to demonstrate that it takes rule-of-law violations seriously. Both within and beyond its borders, the bloc has often prioritized strategic interests and foreign policy priorities over democratic concerns. Thus, its use of conditionality—intended to safeguard the rule of law—has fallen short of achieving its objective. This is vividly illustrated by the EU’s continued support for the Tunisian government despite President Kais Saied’s authoritarian push, revealing a gap between Brussels’s rhetoric and action.

Confronted by multifaceted challenges, the union must reevaluate its approach. Failure to do so may inevitably hinder the EU’s credibility as a legitimate democracy support actor.

At the risk of being pedantic, it depends on what is meant by both “Europe” and “defending democracy.” There are many different types of actors involved in defending democracy and many different types of deepening challenge to democracy.

Formal EU and member state government policies could certainly do more to support democracy. The evidence does not suggest that the EU is that strongly committed in practice to defending democracy internationally—this aim sits fairly far down the union’s list of priorities. Still, even if European democracy policies were stronger, it is not clear how much tangible impact they could have in effectively defending democracy on the ground—this depends mainly on distinctive local conditions. Formal democracy policies can rarely determine democracy’s fate in any primary sense either within or outside the union—both democratization and authoritarian resistance depend on too complex an array of factors, most of them well beyond such policy influence.

Within Europe, in light of current commentary about the upcoming European Parliament elections, it is important to remember that defending democracy is not coeval with “defeating the far right:” What are typically labeled as far-right parties have a range of positions on democracy, and many democracy challenges go far beyond the far right. One risk is that most governments talk easily about defending democracy against the far right and external interference, when their own actions have also done much to impoverish the quality and value of democratic process in the last decade.