Recession and Renewal in European Democracy

Civis Mundi Digitaal #58

door Richard Youngs

There is widespread agreement that liberal democracy is in fragile health in its European heartlands. Freedom House’s recently published 2018 report, “Democracy in Crisis,” suggests liberal democratic values are now at serious risk in Europe. Some survey data suggest that Europeans seem increasingly ambivalent about basic democratic values, leading some scholars even to fear an incipient “democratic deconsolidation.”1 Clearly illiberal trends are afoot in countries like Hungary and Poland, while political analysts have expressed concerns over the rise of nativist-populist parties in numerous European countries.

Richard Youngs

Senior Fellow
Democracy and Rule of Law Program

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Yet disaggregated data from recent surveys reveal a more mixed picture of democracy’s health. Although many democracy-related indicators are heading in a negative direction, others, especially those relating to citizens’ general political participation, show a more positive trajectory. Crucially, the negative and positive trends are deeply entwined, often feeding each other. Rather than undifferentiated gloom, a more accurate picture of Europe’s current democratic situation is one of interactive elements of crisis and renewal.


Several recent surveys reveal declines in measures of democratic quality. Most of these falls are not dramatic, but they have undone some of the democratic gains made by European countries since the end of the Cold War. For instance, the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) database, an international collaborative dataset, shows that in the past decade a modest degree of backsliding has occurred in five component areas of democracy: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian (see figure 1).2


Another frequently cited measure of democratic performance, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, shows a decline in the European Union’s (EU) average democracy score from 8.13 to 7.89 between 2006 and 20163—an overall descent from “full” to “flawed” democracy (see figure 2). The EIU’s recently published 2017 index confirms the downward trend: Western European democracy scores declined very slightly in 2017; while seven European countries’ scores improved, no flawed democracy in the region became a full democracy; France, Malta, and Spain suffered relatively significant declines; and Eastern European scores once again worsened to their lowest-ever levels.

On a more granular level, the worst-hit areas have been civil liberties and rule of law. Freedom of expression and freedom of association scores from V-Dem have fallen by about 3 percent since their 2012 peaks. Between 2015 and 2016, thirteen of twenty-eight EU states registered declines in civil liberties scores; only Germany improved on this marker.4

Comparing indices is illustrative in this sense. The Center for Systemic Peace’s Polity IV scores, which focus on patterns of institutional authority, record a virtual plateau among EU member states over the past decade since 2006.5 In contrast, Freedom House scores for political rights and civil liberties have worsened significantly in Europe during the past ten years; the graph here shows upward trending lines, with higher scores being worse for democracy (see figure 3).

This comparison suggests that much of the decline in overall European democracy scores may be accounted for by a pushback against civil liberties.

Sarah Manney

Sarah Manney worked at Carnegie Europe in 2017 and is currently studying at Stanford University.

Some Eastern European countries have experienced a particularly acute erosion of democratic safeguards. The situations in Poland and Hungary are well known and widely covered, but these are not the only countries beset by illiberal trends. The European Commission’s 2016 Justice Scoreboard shows that in fourteen member states, less than half the population has confidence in the independence of their country’s judiciary. This low-confidence group is made up of Central and Eastern European states but also includes Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Media freedoms have narrowed dramatically in Poland but are also in a precarious state in many other parts of Europe, as shown by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (see figure 4).

As many governments narrow the democratic space, recent surveys confirm well-known trends related to citizens’ apparent ambivalence about standard democratic channels. Election turnout has been declining on average over the past twenty years, from a midpoint of approximately 70 percent in 1996 to just over 60 percent in 2016. The World Values Survey confirms a long-running decline in EU citizens’ trust of political parties. Yet other evidence suggests that many Europeans, especially young people, seem to be questioning the very essence of democratic values. Some analysts highlight World Values Survey data showing that in some European countries, fewer young people believe democracy to be “essential” than do older voters, and an increasing number of young people are critical of democracy as a way of organizing political power.6 An October 2016 YouGov poll found that around half the population across twelve EU states now subscribe to a set of illiberal principles that includes opposition to migration, dislike of human rights laws, and support for more nationalist identities.

Overall, in many places the situation is so deeply preoccupying because democracy appears to be menaced from above and from below. The top-down threat comes from governments that have been constricting liberal practices, and the bottom-up threat stems from the illiberal preferences that seem to have taken root among many citizens.


Many articles have homed in on these negative signals, and more figures point in a similar direction.7 Less attention has been given to the data that run counter to these trends and in some senses suggest a slightly more encouraging scenario for European democracy.

Governments’ illiberal and antidemocratic measures have often sparked public outcries. In Poland, thousands marched on the Supreme Court over the summer of 2017 to protest changes to the judiciary. Similarly, more than 4,000 Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest in late 2017 against the government’s efforts to curtail judicial independence. Over the past decade, according to Freedom House, the subindicator of political participation has improved across Europe (see figure 5). The EIU confirms this trend over the recent 2015–2016 period (see figure 6).

Importantly, evidence shows that this participation manifests in broader forms of civic engagement outside formal parliamentary and party channels. The V-Dem data confirm an improvement in the intensity of civic activity and civil society bandwidth in Europe over the past two decades (see figure 7), even though election turnout has remained steady or declined slightly (see figure 8).

The World Values Survey data from a sample of EU countries show that from the period 2005–2009 to the period 2010–2014, the share of citizens who participated in demonstrations increased more than threefold from 12.6 percent to 42.1 percent. Similar trends are visible for the proportion of individuals taking part in boycotts, pursuing issue-based campaigns, and signing petitions (see figure 9).

Recent Eurobarometer surveys show that young people in particular are moving their political engagement outside of established political structures toward more immediate, issue-specific forms of expression.8 The most common reason that young people cite for not voting or otherwise taking part in traditional politics is their lack of affinity with the candidateson offer in elections. Such alienation may explain why young people are roughly two-thirds more likely to participate in civil society organizations than to join political groups, according to recent Eurobarometer survey data.9

A new wave of engagement centers around community politics, with the percentage of youth engaged in local initiatives jumping 15 percentage points across the EU between 2011 and 2014. This shift toward more impact-oriented engagement may signal that young people are demanding more from politics, rather than sliding into democratic apathy. As the European Commission’s 2015 European youth survey states, “[Young people] are keen to participate, but their interests are shifting; they ask for more channels of participation.” Experts allude to the emergence of “citizen lobbyists,” with committed individuals becoming more active in pressing for change on issues about which they feel especially passionate.10

Although democracy-building initiatives tend to focus on youth participation, the most serious problem arguably lies with the older population, which has disengaged from traditional politics but not reengaged through the emerging forms of participation. Age groups over fifty have the lowest levels of overall participation in politically related activities.

An October 2017 Pew survey found that support for democracy in Europeis generally strong. Small but meaningful numbers express positive attitudes toward options like “rule by experts” or “rule by strong leaders” that, though not antidemocratic as such, could be interpreted as an uncomfortable fit with liberal values. Nonetheless, citizens who express deep dissatisfaction with democracy most often express their discontent on partisan rather than deeply structural lines—that is, people are happier with democracy when their preferred party is in power. Voters may not be questioning democracy as an organizing principle so much as its personification in leaders seen as out of touch or unresponsive. This sentiment seems equally to be driving support for new kinds of democracy. In EU states, 70 percent want more direct democracy. Support for direct democracy is slightly higher among those who support populist parties but is a majority preference for those hostile to these parties as well. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators encapsulate these trends. Although most of its indicators have been falling, the index actually shows rising levels of popular engagement in decisionmaking (see figure 10).

One result of such targeted participation is that governments have effectively come under pressure in relation to certain democratic pathologies. For instance, levels of political corruption in the EU have actually decreased. V-Dem’s political corruption index has dropped 5 points over the past twenty years, from 0.22 in 1996 to 0.17 in 2016 (see figure 11). Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has improved by an average of 2 percent for EU countries.



What then is the meaning of these mixed trends and in particular the discrepancy between rising participation scores and the worsening of other democracy indicators? These negative and positive developments coexist as a sign that democratic crisis and renewal are two sides of the same coin in today’s European politics.

There are causes and effects on both sides of this equation. Governments’ illiberalism is galvanizing citizens into action and encouraging them to search for more effective channels of political pressure and accountability. The heavy executive hand and tightening civic restrictions further push citizens into extraformal avenues of participation outside of traditional electoral politics, including protests and petitions. Governments that push back against democratic norms awaken new forms of political participation and protest. In turn, more assertive and suppler forms of political expression have put governments on the defensive. If these new forms were really so inconsequential and citizen participation so democratically lackluster and torpid, governments would not be so intent on finding ways to restrict the civic and political space.

In short, democratic retrenchment and incipient democratic renewal not only coexist but may be driving each other. A cycle of reaction and counterreaction between governments and the civic sphere has taken root in many European countries. Most debate about European democracy seeks to shed light on the balance between positive and negative trends, with a clear assumption that the latter have now gained the ascendency. But this may be the wrong way to conceive the state of play in European democracy, to the extent that each side of the equation seems to be nourishing the other.

This cycle generates both malign and benign dynamics. On the one hand, as it perpetuates itself, it presents clear dangers to democratic quality: chain reactions of illiberalism and protest threaten to circumvent the institutions that have long been considered integral to democracy. On the other hand, the fact that citizens are going out of their way to create alternative forms of expression need not denote a crisis for democracy; on the contrary, it may help renew party structures that no longer represent real political cleavages. (In future articles, the Reshaping European Democracy team will examine how this pressure is changing democratic politics across the EU.)

There are some grounds for arguing that the strains and tensions of current European politics show that democratic systems are responding well to the illiberal menace—certainly not in all cases, but at least in some instances. Citizens are not so much losing their democratic verve but are searching for new forms of political participation against mounting obstacles to effective accountability. Some widely cited indices are not structured in a way that fully captures this. Citizens no longer want to be passive observers within mass membership organizations but rather want to shape outcomes. The situation in many European countries is deeply worrying; but to some extent, current political tensions reflect democratic resistance kicking in rather than support for political pluralism withering on the vine. The situation is not one of uniform or pervasive indifference to democracy in Europe, but rather of a sharper normative battle over what practices and values democracy should encompass.

It is true that many citizens are giving replies to survey questions that suggest a rather blasé indifference to democratic norms or even a preference for the kind of illiberal values normally associated with wholly or partially undemocratic governance. These replies certainly should not be dismissed lightly. At the same time, however, European citizens’ own behavior does not necessarily tally with widely presumed indifference. Citizens may complain about democracy in the abstract but then also assert that they want more say over political decisions—and have actually become less indulgent toward the kind of cossetted, unresponsive polities that characterize non- or limited democracy. This is not to say that strong and stirring democratic renewal is appearing everywhere. But there is a difference between the problem of governments threatening democracy and that of citizens becoming less committed to basic democratic norms. If democracy is wobbling, sometimes it is because both of these changes are occurring. Often, however, the former is far more evident than the latter, with political elites plotting constricted forms of democracy against citizens’ increasingly strident calls for more meaningfully inclusive and responsive democracy.

Whether the growth of participation outside the formal political sphere ultimately helps or harms democracy will depend on both governments’ response and civic strategies. It will depend on whether civil society organizations can be enticed back into the policymaking process, serving as channels between the government and citizens, or whether they crystallize into parallel structures. If new forms of participation are properly recognized, they could yet catalyze a period of democratic renewal. “”

Although Europe faces some alarming democratic problems, care must be taken not to paint an overly uniform picture. The real challenge is to appreciate which aspects of democracy are functioning poorly and which are actually improving, and to use this knowledge to extrapolate how a different form of democracy is likely to flourish in the future. Young people who prefer more hands-on engagement will place pressure on calcified political systems for more meaningful participation and policy responsiveness. But will the current systems bend or break? Europe’s democratic sands are certainly shifting; the direction these changes will take is all to play for.

Sarah Manney worked at Carnegie Europe in 2017 and is currently studying at Stanford University.

The Reshaping European Democracy project receives the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Warwick.


1 Robert Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (2016): 5–17.

2 Michael Coppedge, et al., “V-Dem [Country-Year/Country-Date] Dataset v7,” Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project, 2017.

3 Data for the years 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 have been drawn from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), “EIU Democracy Index 2016,”

4 Coppedge, et al., “V-Dem [Country-Year/Country-Date] Dataset v7.”

5 Also see Monty G. Marshall, Keith Jaggers, and Ted Robert Gurr, “Polity IV Project: Dataset Users’ Manual,” University of Maryland, 2002.

6 Foa and Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation.”

7 Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: The Rise of Authoritarian-Populism (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

8 Bart Cammaerts, et al., “The Myth of Youth Apathy: Young Europeans’ Critical Attitudes Toward Democratic Life,” American Behavioral Scientist58, no. 5 (2014): 645–64.

9 Cammaerts, “The Myth of Youth Apathy.”

10 Alberto Alemanno, Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society (London: Icon Books, 2017).