Problems, challenges and opportunities

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Box 1: The minimum standard for accession

(Armenia as an example: Parliamentary Assembly Opinion No. 221 (2000))

The requirements for accession to the Council of Europe vary between countries. The Parliamentary Assembly gives an opinion on each application which sets the standard. Armenia’s 2001 accession is fairly typical of the standards now being expected. Armenia was required to undertake the following:

  • to sign the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as amended by Protocols Nos. 2 and 11 thereto, and Protocols Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 7; 

  • to ratify the ECHR and Protocols Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 7 thereto during the year following its accession; 

  • to sign and ratify, within one year of its accession, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and its protocols; 

  • to sign and ratify, within one year of its accession, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

  • to sign and ratify, within one year of its accession, the European Charter of Local Self-Government

  • to sign and ratify, within two years of its accession, the European Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation between Territorial Communities or Authorities and its additional protocols, and the Council of Europe conventions on extradition, on mutual assistance in criminal matters, on laundering, search, seizure and confiscation of the proceeds from crime, and on the transfer of sentenced persons, and in the meantime to apply the fundamental principles contained therein; 

  • to sign the European Social Charter within two years of its accession and ratify it within three years of accession, and to strive forthwith to implement a policy consistent with the principles of the Charter. 

Many countries also sign the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities before accession.

While not all these treaties are directly related to democracy, their combination provides a strong underpinning for the Council’s work in this area.

Like many countries, Armenia had also signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in advance of accession, thereby including it in its list of European accession agreements (See Box 1 above). These requirements were similar for other recent accession countries, such as Latvia (1995), and so provide a good basis for establishing the minimum standards expected of member countries.

Not all treaties contribute to the Council’s acquis in the field of democratic institutions. Indeed, many have only passing relevance to democracy while others have an important but indirect influence on democracy. This report proposes a threefold classification of the treaties that the Council offers for signature and ratification, according to their relevance to democracy and the development of democratic institutions.

Pre-conditional treaties are those which establish the pre-conditions by which democracy and its wider values and principles can be realised. These treaties articulate the core principles that would be expected in modern democracies and include, among others, the Council’s conventions on human rights, social rights and welfare, and freedom of speech. They also include those conventions and charters which confirm the rule of law, such as treaties addressing corruption, transborder co-operation and privacy issues. The common feature of these treaties is that they articulate or enact broad principles that underpin democracy rather than address democratic institutions directly.

Institutional treaties, by contrast, are those which are directly concerned with establishing particular institutional structures or practices concerned with democracy, or with relationships between democratic institutions. These treaties include the European Charter of Local Self-Government and proposed charters on urban government and regional self-government. These treaties are central to the acquis on democracy.

Extraneous treaties are those which address other issues of European values or the rule of law but which have no direct bearing upon democratic institutions or practices. These treaties are important in establishing stability and maintaining co-operation between nation-states but have only indirect relevance to the development of democratic institutions in Europe.

It is the institutional treaties that are the most significant for the acquis although it is also necessary to note their relationship with the pre-conditional treaties at various points. The focus of this document will be primarily upon institutional treaties, although it will also draw upon pre-conditional treaties where they have a bearing upon institutional practices or development.

Proceedings: Committee of Ministers, Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

While treaties provide the legal basis for defining the acquis, the development of democratic institutions is addressed more directly in the proceedings of the various organs of the Council: the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (the Congress). The deliberations of these three bodies provide both an interpretation of the formal understanding of democracy and an indication of the issues that contemporary democracies in Europe are facing. These deliberations also provide clues to the democratic priorities of the Council and the directions in which democracy is being developed.

The proceedings of the Committee of Ministers vary across a range of different texts, from decisions and declarations on particular issues through to recommendations to particular bodies or countries, resolutions on particular concerns, and replies to recommendations or questions put to it by the other pillars of the Council (the Assembly and Congress). From the perspective of the acquis on democracy, the recommendations of the Committee of Ministers to member states on matters for which it has agreed a common policy are particularly significant. Where they refer to democracy, these recommendations not only highlight the key democratic problems and solutions that the Committee is identifying, but also the broader direction in which it is aiming to take democracy. The Committee also exercises a role in monitoring the adoption or implementation of its recommendations among member states. The extent to which it has monitored the implementation of recommendations that affect democracy is also indicative of the significance it attaches to particular democratic institutions or practices.

Similarly, the proceedings of the Parliamentary Assembly vary across a number of categories. The Assembly adopts four types of texts: recommendations to the Committee of Ministers on proposals that member states might adopt; resolutions that reflect the Assembly’s agreed position on a particular issue or question that it has identified and concluded on its own; opinions on questions put to it by the Committee of Ministers and; orders to its committees. These texts make an important contribution to the acquis because they reflect the deliberations of parliamentarians from all forty-five member states and are, therefore, grounded in a recognition of the democratic issues and opportunities that exists across Europe. However, they need to be treated with some caution in so far as not all texts receive substantial input across the full membership of the Assembly. The main requirement is that recommendations or resolutions must be tabled by ten or more members of the Assembly belonging to at least five national delegations. It is possible, therefore, for some of these texts to represent regional concerns or the interests of a particular category of countries which are not representative of the whole of Europe. Consequently, while they have not necessarily been opposed by other member states, it would be incorrect to assume that all of these texts have the full endorsement of all countries. Nevertheless, once they are adopted by the Assembly, they do form part of the acquis and contribute to the Council’s interpretation of democracy, not least because they have been officially adopted by the Assembly through its statutory processes.

The Congress has three main types of text that it adopts. Its recommendations are normally addressed to the Committee or the Assembly but can also be directed at individual member states, encouraging a particular course of action. Its resolutions often follow the same subject as recommendations but are addressed to local or regional authorities and invite them to undertake particular activities. Finally, it also develops non-binding charters that it encourages local and national governments to adopt. These texts are particularly important to the development of the acquis because they often address specific elements of democracy (such as the participation of young people in political life) and focus especially upon institutions that support democracy, particularly at the sub-national level. Like the Assembly, however, the extent to which adopted texts are widely discussed across members varies on different topics.

Reports and general publications

To support the development of adopted texts, the various organs of the Council also produce a range of reports and publications that set out in more details the evidence and reasoning behind particular recommendations, resolutions and so on. These reports provide a valuable means of understanding the arguments behind decisions made by the various organs. They also give an indication of how recommendations and resolutions should be interpreted and the way in which they relate to other adopted texts. Such reports and publications are not restricted to the three main pillars but are also found in other elements of the Council’s work. The Venice Commission and GRECO both provide important sources of evidence and guidance that contributes to the acquis. However, in analysing the contribution of these organisations it is necessary to bear in mind that these bodies represent partial agreements to which not all member states of the Council of Europe are signed up. Finally, many activities of the Council also produce documents and reports that seek to clarify or strengthen aspects of democratic practice. The outputs from the integrated project “Making democratic institutions work”, of which this document is part, are particularly important here. A number of conference reports and publications provide a synthesis of the Council’s position on specific topics of relevance to democracy in Europe. Again, these outputs provide valuable direction to the acquis.

None of these reports and other outputs has a formal status in relation to the work of the Council of Europe in so far as they are not part of the statutory outputs of any of the Council’s organs and have not been adopted as a text by any of them. However, for the purposes of this analysis they are included in the acquis because they provide the background and sense of purpose that is not always overtly apparent in the formally adopted texts of the main pillars.

The Council has not developed in isolation from other pan-European and international bodies. Most significantly, the institutions of the European Union (especially the European Commission, European Parliament, Committee of the Regions and the European Convention on the Future of Europe) the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations, have all interacted with the Council to both shape and be shaped by the Council’s activities. On the one hand, for example, the Council has had to be sensitive to its relationship with the various organs of the European Union, which have significantly affected its interpretation of how democratic institutions should work. On the other hand, the Council has also led other international bodies in many of its institutional recommendations and activities: for example, the draft world charter of local self-government has been “modelled very closely on the European Charter of Local Self-Government”.3 While the work of these other bodies does not directly form part of the Council of Europe’s acquis, it nevertheless has significant implications for the development of the Council’s knowledge and thinking about democratic institutions over time. Where relevant, this document will also make reference to such relationships.

Chapter 2 : Problems, challenges and opportunities

The context in which the Council of Europe is seeking to shape democratic institutions and practices is a complex one. Beyond the obvious recognition of forty-five member states encompassing some 800 million citizens there is also the identification of a number of problems, challenges and opportunities facing European democracy in the 21st century. This chapter draws upon the adopted texts of different Council organs to briefly explore three factors that set the context in which democratic institutions operate. First, it considers the perceived problems that the Council recognises and seeks to address through various institutional interventions. These problems are primarily internal difficulties with the way in which democracy works in particular countries or in particular institutional contexts. Second, it considers the wider challenges that the Council is responding to in its various activities. These challenges emerge from changing economic, demographic, social and political behaviours that the Council has observed. Finally, the chapter briefly considers some of the opportunities that the Council is seeking to grasp, particularly in relation to the exploitation of new technologies to support democracy across Europe.

Democratic problems

Much of the work of the Council of Europe is concerned with addressing perceived problems in the way that democracy works across Europe or in specific countries. It is neither desirable nor sensible to seek to address here all of the problems that the Council has identified in its work. Instead, this section deals briefly with four broad problems that are prevalent in the Council’s contemporary thinking4 and which are consequently guiding its democratic ambitions.

First, like many other national and international organisations, the Council has become increasingly concerned with the growing democratic deficit in Europe. The 2003 Parliamentary Assembly resolution on the future of democracy sums it up as follows:

The Assembly is conscious that participation in elections at local, regional and national levels in several member states is often characterised by relatively low turnouts and considers this as alarming, although abstentions in elections may also be conscious expressions of a popular will.5

The problem here is primarily a crisis of political and democratic legitimacy. Participation in elections and a wider engagement in political life are often perceived to be proxy measures for the efficacy of democracy. While there are conceptual and practical problems with an over-emphasis upon such measures, they are nevertheless indicative of citizen involvement with the issues being addressed by governments. Moreover, by participating in elections and other aspects of mainstream politics, citizens tacitly legitimise the institutions and processes of democratic government and accept the validity of policy outcomes, even where they may personally disagree with the ideological basis of particular governments or the content of particular policies. Conversely, non-participation is often taken to represent, at best, apathy on the part of citizens or worse still, a tacit rejection of the legitimacy of governing institutions and processes. The concern with young people’s lack of participation in politics and the fear that disengagement is a generational rather than life-cycle effect is particularly symptomatic of this problem. If disengagement represents a tacit rejection of governing institutions and processes, especially among young people, then it is storing up a major crisis of democratic legitimacy for the future. Of course, this thesis of tacit rejection is only one explanation for the observed phenomenon and may exaggerate a problem that is better explained by wider socio-political and cultural change.6 However, it does help to explain the Council’s concern with the democratic deficit.

The problem is not new to the Council. A 1997 recommendation of the Committee of Ministers highlighted the need to foster greater involvement of young people in civic life, especially at the local level.7 Among other measures, it recommended the development of European networks to foster greater youth participation. Furthermore, a subsequent recommendation in 1998 recognised the importance of children’s participation in family and social life as a precondition for developing broader democratic cultures in society. Among other principles, it argues that:

Participation [of children] is a decisive factor for securing social cohesion and for living in a democracy in accordance with the values of a multicultural society and the principles of tolerance; Participation of children is crucial in influencing the conditions of their own lives, in that participation is not only involvement in institutions and decision making but above all a general pattern of democracy relevant to all areas of family and social life;8

Consequently, it goes on to recommend that member states should:

Encourage local authorities and municipalities to promote children's participation, as well as parents and child participation, in as many areas as possible of municipal life, as a way to develop community responsibility, and make citizenship a real-life experience for children; [and] encourage the development of forms of children's participation at the local, regional and national levels.

More recently, the Committee of Ministers has also been concerned about the gender balance in political participation and the need to ensure that women are properly represented in the institutions of democracy. Among its more significant proposals is a recommendation that representation of either women or men in any decision-making body in political or public life should not fall below 40%.9 Despite these recommendations, however, participation remains a significant problem for member states.

A second identified problem in much of the Council’s work also offers an alternative explanation for political disengagement and the democratic deficit, in as far as it is concerned with the supposed absence of trust that citizens have in political institutions and processes. Mistrust has several causes. One cause is the evidence of continuing corruption that pervades governments, from allegations of nepotism in the European Union through to the failure of a number of Council of Europe member states to accede to the Council’s agreement that establishes GRECO.10 It should be noted, however, that allegations of corruption are by no means restricted to a few identified countries or, indeed, to any particular tier of government. While the scale of the problem may vary, allegations of corruption occur in all European countries from time to time. It is for this reason that the Council has been concerned with establishing and enforcing a range of democratic standards, from electoral processes11 through to ethical standards for public servants.12

An additional cause of political mistrust stems from the increasing professionalisation of politics and the apparent absence of transparency in many political processes. Despite the wealth of information that existing and new media generate on government practices, there remains a sense that much of government is secretive and self-serving. Furthermore, there is a concern that many governments seek to control, manipulate or suppress public debate on particular topics, particularly in their behaviour towards the media.13 This latter problem is of particular concern, not least because it goes to the very heart of the fundamental democratic principle of freedom of expression. As a consequence, the Council has continuously supported a free and pluralistic media as both a watchdog for government, thus increasing transparency, and as a wider embodiment of the principle of free speech. The Council’s ongoing concern has been that either or both of these roles are being threatened within certain European countries.

While the cause and response is varied, all of these activities are seeking to address a perceived problem of declining trust in political institutions. An absence of trust in politics generally and scepticism towards the institutions of democracy in particular, is implicitly deemed to be a threat to democracy. In identifying distrust as a problem, therefore, the Council is seeking to address what it perceives as a major cause of democratic failure in Europe.

A third problem revolves around the issue of suffrage and the potential for disenfranchisement of citizens: both real and perceived. Real disenfranchisement refers to the corrupt, illegal or unethical practices that prevent some individuals from exercising their right to participate in political and democratic processes. This problem includes the practice of family voting and the systematic exclusion of ethnic minorities or immigrants from the political process.14 It has become a major theme in the Council’s work, especially with the increased membership of the Council and the increasing trans-border migration that has become a feature of much of Europe. Perceived disenfranchisement refers to the feeling of many citizens that any participation on their part, either through the ballot box or in other ways, will have no effect upon government. In many respects, this problem relates to the arguments of “relative deprivation” theories which suggest that “the gap between citizens” expectations and states’ capacity to solve the problems is widening’.15 However, it also refers to the experiences of particular socio-economic and demographic groups that feel systematically under-represented among the political elite and remain, therefore, disengaged from formal politics. Again, much of the work that the Council is involved in is not only seeking to redress actual disenfranchisement but is also seeking to encourage greater political participation among those groups who perceive a degree of exclusion from democratic politics.16

A final problem concerns the role of non-governmental organisations in contributing to a democratic culture and the broader development of a civic society in countries where such associational life has been discouraged or actively prevented. Attention to this problem is closely related to the concept of “associative democracy”17 and the introduction of social capital concepts18 to the policy debate. As the 2002 Citizens’ Forum organised by the project “Making democratic institutions work” recognised, non-governmental organisations not only provide services beyond the state but also provide an integrative role, especially at the local level.19 Indeed, they may also have a role to play in developing community trust and reciprocity, even in relation to political institutions. However, the range and type of NGOs varies considerably across Europe and, in the transition countries in particular, there is a general absence of such community-based organisations. Given that such organisations foster social cohesion, trust and reciprocity and are widely equated with effective democracy,20 their absence in some countries is a major problem. It seems likely that this is an issue that is likely to tax the Council for a number of years.

As noted at the outset, these problems are neither unique to European democracies nor the only ones facing the Council of Europe: other problems, such as the rise of extremist, racist or xenophobic parties across many European countries, also feature prominently in contemporary discussions. Equally, the threat to democracy from terrorism and the ability of these threats both to strengthen the hand of racist and xenophobic parties in individual states and to justify secretive or repressive behaviour by organs of the state is becoming a concern.21 However, these four problems of political and democratic legitimacy, mistrust, disenfranchisement and the absence of a civic society infrastructures in some countries, do represent the core of issues that are attracting much of the Council’s attention and driving its current activities.

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