DRI held a roundtable in Berlin on 4 November 2019 with conservative/right-wing parties, as well as opinion makers from nine European countries to explore the state of democracy in Europe and the red lines of democracy. The discussion covered polarisation and freedom of speech, the rule of law in Europe, and the role of the EU in defending democracy and European identity in the region. As a non-partisan organisation, DRI convened this group as many of them criticise current democratic practice and at the same time they often stand accused of undermining democracy. We wanted to hear them out and discuss democratic principles in the European context.
The roundtable was held under Chatham House rule. Discussions were frank, often controversial and always respectful in tone.
International and European human rights treaties and UN General Assembly Resolution 59/201 were used as reference points to define the “red lines of democracy”. This resolution defines seven elements that are essential for democracy: respect of human rights, right to participate in public affairs directly and indirectly (through free elections), pluralism, rule of law, separation of powers, transparent and accountable in public administration, and free media.
Freedom of speech and polarisation
Many participants said that freedom of speech in Europe remains under pressure. Some felt that it is often not possible to voice opinions that are not in line with what they call the “liberal mainstream” without being labelled “populists”, “racists” or otherwise. In their view, the corridor of opinion is too narrow. Other participants said that some parties are “excluded” because they do not draw a credible line between themselves and extremists. Many participants deplored that the debate too often stays within peer groups (‘bubbles’) and that too few people dare to have debates across camps. There was agreement that the discourse between different political convictions needs to be strengthened. Some participants said that every single citizen has a responsibility for the quality of the public debate and that responsibility grows with political influence.
Some participants deplored high levels of polarisation and the fact that it is harder to hold the middle ground. Social media is an important factor that fuels polarisation – because its design incentivises attention-grabbing and provocative statements. There were different views on regulating hate speech. While some participants said that regulation often entails de facto censorship and should be limited to banning insults and instigating violence, others said that hate speech is a threat to democracy that needs to be regulated.
To counter polarisation, some participants stated that it is important to tone down the language, avoiding generalisation, stereotypes of minorities and abrasive, history-laden terms, such as traitor of the people, system party, lying press or fake news media. Other participants disagreed, advocating debates with very few constraints. One participant felt that the European tradition of free speech should be abolished in favour of the US approach, where almost any type of speech is allowed. Local policies are another tool to mitigate polarisation because local policies focus on practical problems, which facilities compromises.
One participant alleged that “so-called civil society” is unelected, and that some pursue partisan objectives against specific parties and often has obscure sources of funding. Other participants disagreed, sometimes strongly, saying that civil society is essential for citizens to participate in public affairs and that laws provide the rules and transparency in this field.
Rule of law in Europe
All participants agreed that the rule of law is a cornerstone of the EU and democracy in Europe, but the concrete definition and implementation of the concept is a matter of controversy. While some participants believed that the many changes to Poland’s judicial system are a problem, others alleged that Poland is unfairly singled out. There was disagreement to what extent the Catalan question is a rule of law and a European problem. Participants were critical of the developments in Hungary.
Some participants believed that the EU applies double standards when it defends the rule of law in the Member States. Some thought that the EU’s infringement procedures are good tools to safeguard the rule of law but others argued that recent judgements by the European Court of Justice are an example of the court overstepping its mandate. Participants were in favour of the Commission’s plan to report on rule of law monitoring in all Member States.
The role of the EU and other players in defending democracy and European identity
Some participants believed that the EU is essential to defend European identity and Europe’s place in the world. For them, deeper integration is necessary, but they felt that the EU needs to do more to define its identity. Some participants said that a European identity should acknowledge the role of in Christianity in Europe’s history. In their view, important values like democracy and human rights alone do not suffice to create a sense of shared identity. To build a European identity, one participant suggested a European Broadcasting System; stating that the European Song Contest is not enough.
One participant said that the EU is undemocratic because elections to the European Parliament are not based on the principle of one person, one vote. Bigger member states have proportionally fewer members. A number of participants disagreed, pointing to the fact that the EU is far more democratic than any international organisation, but not comparable to a state. They argued that the European nation-states maintained for themselves an essential role: They are not only represented in the Council, but they also avoid that smaller nations would be entirely marginalised in the European Parliament. There was a concern that the EU neglects policies that will shape the EU’s future, highlighting the example of climate policies.