Problems, challenges and opportunities

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Democratic challenges

The challenges facing European democracy are related to the problems noted above but are different from them in that they emerge from factors that are largely external to the institutions of democracy. In some respects, they are also shaping the problems identified by the Council and the patterns of responses that are available. Again, the challenges are wide and varied. However, many of them can be captured by reference to three broad themes.

First, the theme of globalisation is recognised as being significant in affecting the development of democracy and the behaviour of citizens within it. As the Parliamentary Assembly’s 2003 resolution on the future of democracy recognised:

The growing globalisation of trade, economies and financial markets poses challenges to national governments and parliaments which are beyond their control through national law and policies, provoking a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty within society, and requiring the reinforced multilateral co-operation of states.22

While the concept of globalisation remains contested by competing definitions and meanings, from the Council of Europe’s perspective globalisation is a challenge because it threatens the sovereignty of nation-states over a range of economic and social issues. Economic and social changes are enforced upon nations, often despite their best efforts to resist them. This threat, in turn, also leads to the problem of decreasing legitimacy for parliaments and governments. Of course, the significance of contemporary globalisation is often overstated and, in some respects at least, differs little from previous periods of global economic and social change: it is simply that the patterns of financial accumulation and power are shifting across nations. However, it is also a new challenge for the Council of Europe because democracy is now the dominant mode of political organisation, at least within Europe. Because globalisation requires co-ordinated responses across nation-states which all have their own distinct democratic foundations and legitimacy, the challenge is more complex and sophisticated than previously experienced. There are concomitant patterns of greater convergence across Europe around core principles, such as the protection of fundamental human rights, and divergence as countries seek to protect their own national or regional heritage and economies. Developing consensual and co-ordinated responses to the challenges of globalisation within a framework that not only seeks to sustain democratic practice but also to extend it, is a fundamental challenge for the Council.

Second, and related to the issue of globalisation, is the challenge of Europeanisation. Various pan-European institutions have expanded significantly in the past two decades. Most notably, the Council of Europe has more than doubled its membership since 1989, from twenty-two in 1988 to forty-five by 2003, while the European Union admitted ten new states in May 2004 and is expected to expand further in the next few years. Despite references that these organisations make to a common European heritage,23 in reality their expansion encompasses a wide range of ethnic, religious and cultural differences which need to be accommodated in their various institutional developments. Indeed, the linguistic challenges of bringing together forty-five countries that are so geographically varied, from Iceland through to Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation through to Portugal, poses a fundamental problem for developing a common European identity and understanding of democracy. Some go as far as to question whether Europe can survive the ignorance of other languages in Europe. The expansion has also increased the mobility of citizens, creating new challenges for local and regional democracy. Consequently, the challenge of Europeanisation is twofold. On the one hand, it is the challenge of defining a common set of standards and democratic practices which can accommodate the very different practices and cultures of individual member states. On the other hand, it is also the broader challenge of defining a common understanding of Europeanisation and its meaning to democracy, especially in the context of some political and social cultures that are resistant to any form of closer European co-operation and sceptical of Europe-wide institutions.24

The third challenge is concerned more with the broader social and political trends that can be observed across many different democracies and, particularly, the change in political behaviour that can be observed among citizens. Pippa Norris, in a paper for the Council’s symposium on young people and democratic institutions, refers to the dual issues of changing repertoires and agencies of political activity as the basis for understanding broader changes in political behaviour.25 By repertoires she means the actions used for political expression and notes a generational move from conventional politics organised around the work of political parties, to cause-oriented repertoires focused more around single issue politics and involving more direct forms of action. Her observations are supported by other research which shows a higher level of individualisation and issue-focus in contemporary political engagement.26 By agencies she means the collective organisations that mediate and direct political engagement. Again she notes a move away from engagement with traditional organisations such as churches and unions and a greater propensity, especially among young people, to join new social movements and issue based organisations. As she argues:

Instead today it seems clearer to distinguish between citizen-oriented actions, relating mainly to elections and parties, and cause-oriented repertoires, which focus attention upon specific issues and policy concerns, exemplified by consumer politics (buying or boycotting certain products for political or ethical reasons), petitioning, demonstrations, and protests.27

In many respects her empirical evidence adds substance to the changing patterns of engagement that have been widely observed across European democracies. Interestingly, she argues that there is little evidence of declining youth participation: “the political energies among the younger generation in post-industrial societies have diversified and flowed through cause-oriented activism, rather than simply ebbed away into apathy”.28

The changing pattern of political repertoires raises an important democratic challenge for the Council of Europe not only because it means that the Council must recognise and respond to differing mechanisms for political participation but, also, because these changing repertoires have significance for the established institutions of democracy. The difference between the repertoires is not only one of behaviour but also of focus. Traditional patterns of political participation were mostly focused around attempts to directly or indirectly influence representative government. Indeed, much of the conventional literature on political participation adopts this position as the means of defining and distinguishing political participation from wider social or economic behaviour.29 By contrast, new or emerging repertoires of political participation, particularly among the young, are focused on more nebulous targets and see the institutions of representative democracy as only one point of influence. New social movements are often more concerned with the behaviour of multi-national companies or are focused upon particular issues that cut across national boundaries. The nation-state and its institutions of national and sub-national governance are often deemed peripheral or irrelevant in these wider struggles, especially where global economic or environmental issues are the focus of attention. If the argument that there is a generational shift towards these new repertoires of political engagement is correct, then the Council of Europe faces a significant challenge in making existing institutions of representative democracy relevant to emerging issues and patterns of political behaviour. Unless democratic institutions can respond to this challenge they run the risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant to the political interests of large parts of society. Ultimately, a failure to rise to this challenge may lead to further atrophy of democracy across Europe.

The Council, of course, has already begun to respond to these problems and challenges. After all, the identification of these issues has emerged from the Council’s own adopted texts, including the recommendations and resolutions of various organs within it and it seems likely that they will continue to drive many of the specific activities of the Council.

Democratic opportunities

While the range of responses to these problems and challenges is wide and varied, both within the Council and among individual member states, there are two key opportunities which the Council is seeking to grasp: the opportunities offered by expanding Europeanisation and the role of new technologies in sustaining and adapting democratic practices. This final section will briefly set out these opportunities.

Despite recognising the multiple challenges that Europeanisation raises for the Council it is also necessary to acknowledge the opportunities that it affords democracy. Events since 1989 have seen democracy become the overwhelming mode of political organisation across Europe, with democratic institutions in the transition countries being shaped especially by the activities of the Council of Europe and other European-wide bodies such as the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The massive expansion of both Europe as a coherent political body and democracy as its dominant mode of organisation offers a number of opportunities. Most obviously, it enables a degree of co-operation across all forty-five member countries of the Council of Europe that never seemed possible even twenty years ago. This co-operation and unity was uppermost in the thoughts of the 10 founding countries when they established the Council’s statute. In the preamble to the statute they state:

Believing that, for the maintenance and further realisation of these ideals and in the interests of economic and social progress, there is a need of a closer unity between all like-minded countries of Europe; Considering that, to respond to this need and to the expressed aspirations of their peoples in this regard, it is necessary forthwith to create an organisation which will bring European States into closer association …30

However, in 1949 these aspirations must have seemed unattainable on the scale that they are now being achieved by the Council. As Walter Schwimmer, the Secretary General of the Council has argued:

[T]he Council of Europe remained an essentially Western European organisation until the gradual dismantling of the regimes in Central and Eastern Europe which were based on different political structures and values. This process started in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. The revolutions of 1989 brought the Council of Europe back to its original objectives. The Council of Europe had always the aim to cover the whole of Europe. Only the political, military and ideological division of Europe prevented the Organisation from fulfilling its statutory objectives. The political "new deal" in Europe, which followed the development of 1989, gave the Council of Europe a chance to deploy its potential to the full as a pan-European co-operation structure, as well as an essentially peace building and conflict prevention organisation.31

Its ever expanding membership to encompass almost every European state and principality provides a unique opportunity to promote a common basis for democracy across the continent and beyond. Only two European countries, Monaco and Belarus, remain outside of the Council of Europe umbrella. Both applied for membership, but only Monaco is a candidate country today.32 Indeed, Monaco is likely to accede very soon, following a favourable opinion from the Parliamentary Assembly in April 2004.

As well as co-operation and a sense of European unity the Europeanisation project also allows two related democratic developments to emerge. First, it enables the development of a common set of democratic principles and standards that can be promoted across Europe. The following chapter is particularly concerned with identifying the common principles that lie at the heart of European democracy. The sense of co-operation and unity fostered by the Council encourages both the Council and its member states to identify democratic failings in particular countries and to exercise their influence to raise democratic standards and practice. The instruments for achieving this range from the 193 legally binding European treaties that members are expected to sign up to, through to monitoring exercises established by the Committee of Ministers in relation to specific countries.33 In this respect, expanding Europeanisation is a virtuous circle that continuously raises opportunities to enhance European democracy. However, the notion of “variable geometry” which enables differing democratic practices to be accommodated within the overarching remit of the Council also poses some problems for this virtuous circle. As Peter Schieder, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly observed in a 2003 speech (“Building one Europe”, September 2003):

[Europe] … is an idea, a vision of a peaceful and prosperous continent, based on ever closer co-operation between all its peoples, and governed by a common set of values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law... When it comes to the most fundamental principles of our societies freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity, tolerance, justice, the rule of law there cannot be more than one Europe. We cannot allow à la carte values, where authorities, national or others, are allowed to pick and choose the norms of decent conduct which suit them. We share the responsibility to prevent this from happening.

The Council faces some significant challenges in realising this opportunity.

Second, Europeansation offers the opportunity for wider learning and policy transfer between countries, especially in the context of enhancing democratic institutions and practices. The harmonisation of democratic standards seeks, in general, to gain best practice from across member states and to reinforce democracy. In the context of a diverse range of member states, the opportunities for experiential learning are immense. Contrasts between large and small states, between geographically homogenous and geographically diverse countries, between old and new democracies and between ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences, all provide opportunities for different experiences to emerge and different lessons to be learned. Member states may learn from others with which they share similar characteristics in terms of scale, geography or demography. On the other hand, differences between countries may also act as a mirror in some instances, especially when comparing the practices of old and new democracies. For example, freedom of the press is widely assumed to be a fundamental feature of democracy and one that needs to be actively promoted among newer democracies. However, French press law dating back to 1881 is highly restrictive and although not applied in practice, nevertheless remains on the statute books.34 Expanding Europeanisation, therefore, offers opportunity not only for the development of a core set of beliefs but, also, for all member countries to reflect upon how their democracy works and how it might be improved.

The other opportunity that the Council has sought to exploit has been in the area of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the potential that they offer democracy. The project “Making democratic institutions work” has been particularly important in focusing the Council’s work in this area. Walter Schwimmer, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, confirmed the Council’s commitment to this opportunity in his foreword to a 2003 review of the Council’s legal texts and publication in the field of ICTs:

… it is a priority of the Council of Europe to fully exploit the potential of ICTs as a means of improving people’s direct participation in shaping the democracies they live in … Work on these new themes is being carried out in the framework of the Europe-wide standards for ICT as a tool to uphold and develop democracy which have been set by the Council of Europe on such issues as data protection, access provision for rural areas, training for women and girls, the development of cultural activities and the dangers of cybercrime and cyber hate-speech.35

This recognition of the importance of ICTs to the democratic future of Europe is not only an acknowledgement of how new technologies may be used to enhance some democratic engagement but also an understanding of how technological developments cut across other aspects of the Council’s work. Although this report will return to the relationship between ICTs and democracy a number of times in the chapters that follow, this section will briefly outline two opportunities that the Council appears to anticipate from the exploitation of ICTs.

First, the Council seeks to exploit ICTs to support or enhance the institutions of contemporary democracy by bringing about changes in democratic practice. In many respects, this is what Trechsel et al., in their study of e-democracy across all twenty-five current and acceding countries of the European Union, refer to as the latest “technology of democracy”.36 They argue that the mechanisms by which democratic principles have been articulated have changed greatly throughout democracy’s history, from the Greek Agora to contemporary systems of representative government. In the dynamic development of democracy, each transition to a new set of democratic institutions has been dependent upon the adoption of particular technologies. In this context, ICTs are simply the latest technology to be applied to democracy. Of course, depending upon how it is adopted, this latest technology holds profound implications for contemporary institutions. The role of the Council in supporting or developing standards in particular ICT applications, therefore, is significant for the way in which these technologies enhance, or otherwise change, democratic practices. In particular, the Council appears to want to protect core democratic principles when ICTs are implemented.

The Council has been involved in promoting the take-up of new technologies both in general across Europe and, more specifically in relation to the “Making democratic institutions work” project, to support or enhance identified democratic processes.37 While the impact of ICTs in Europe has been a long standing concern for the Council, however, the potential of ICTs as a new “technology of democracy” is a relatively recent interest. The Council has adopted a number of conventions and texts on aspects of the information society, ranging from data protection through to European wide responses to cyber crime, demonstrating a

long and ongoing concern with the different impacts of these new technologies.38 However, it was not until 1997 that the Parliamentary Assembly began to express a particular desire to investigate the ways in which ICTs might support the democratic process with two linked resolutions that explored the representative and participatory potential.39 Following these resolutions the Committee of Ministers adopted a declaration that welcomed:

the opportunities offered by the new information technologies to promote freedom of expression and information, political pluralism and cultural diversity, and to contribute to a more democratic and sustainable information society

and recognised

the potential of new information technologies to improve openness, transparency and efficiency at all levels – national, regional and local – of the governance, administration and judicial systems of member states and hence to consolidate democratic stability.40

Such a declaration not only acknowledges the democratic potential of ICTs but exhorts member states to adopt and adapt technological developments to support specific democratic goals. In particular, it encourages the adaptation of e-government tools to enhance the effectiveness, transparency and responsiveness of democratic institutions.

Since the 1999 declaration countries across Europe and beyond have become interested especially in remote e-voting and a number of experiments have been conducted in various member states.41 Through the integrated project, the Council has responded by developing an e-voting stream within its activities that supports the development of pan-European standards and protocols for e-voting systems. While there remain concerns over the technical, social and legal environments in which e-voting can emerge,42 the Council is leading the way in setting trans-national standards for the way in which such difficulties can be addressed. In this area, in particular, it is grasping the democratic potential of ICTs and seeking to mitigate the supposedly negative impact that technologies might have on democracy.

The second opportunity that new ICTs offer democracy is less tangible but nonetheless significant. Because the technologies have an affect upon the institutions of democracy they inevitably lead to the expression of particular values. An emphasis upon a particular technology to support a particular democratic process or activity explicitly articulates the underlying values and principles of that aspect of democracy. For example, e-voting seeks to extend the principles of political equality by making it easier for all citizens to vote (although, without addressing the digital divide it may have the opposite effect in the short term). Conversely, allowing anti-democratic values to be pursued through ICTs implicitly accepts the abandonment of particular democratic principles. The Council’s work in seeking to prevent the development of “hate speech” on the Internet gives substance to its broader work on balancing freedom of speech with anti-racist and xenophobic activities.43 In pursuing such concerns the Council is not only expressing its disquiet about particular uses of ICTs but is also giving voice to its own deep-rooted values and principles. In this respect ICTs afford an opportunity to reinforce and articulate the values and principles that the Council stands for. Sometimes this reinforcement may reflect a positive use of the technology while, at other times, its use may be more negative. However, the significant point is that ICTs offer such an opportunity.

This reinforcement is not based upon an argument of technological determinism. There does not appear to be an assumption in the Council’s acquis that technologies have implicit impacts upon democracy or lead inexorably to particular democratic futures. Rather the Council recognises the potential changes that are occurring across Europe and the opportunities that the harnessing of particular technological developments may offer democracy.


It is important to recognise the problems, challenges and opportunities that face European democracy, because it is these issues that provide the context in which the Council of Europe is seeking to make democratic institutions work. The most apparent problem is the perception of an increasing democratic deficit in both established and newer democracies. Participation in formal political institutions continues to decline while the attention of the politically active is increasingly shifting towards issues that are beyond the control of nation-states and take place outside of the traditional institutions of collective politics. Faced with changing patterns of political engagement, the legitimacy of traditional institutions of democracy is called into question. This issue is compounded by a second problem: that of political mistrust. Although some scepticism is healthy for democracy, declining trust in both politics and political institutions is a threat in so far as it encourages even greater distance between citizens and governments. Even if such mistrust was not an issue, however, the extent to which various groups are systematically excluded from political life and effectively disenfranchised, represents a third problem for contemporary European democracy. Whether perceived or real, disenfranchisement is a problem for democracy because it strikes at one of its core principles, that of political equality. Finally, a fourth problem for democracy is the absence of effective civic infrastructures and the active participation of NGOs in political and democratic life in many countries. The organisations of civil society are widely acknowledged to be an important intermediary between citizens and the state in effective democracies. Their absence, therefore, is a fundamental problem for democracy which may inhibit the effective working of its institutions.

The challenges to democracy come from outside of its institutional structures or procedures and revolve around broader socio-economic and political pressures. First, an awareness of globalisation frames the limitations of individual nation-states in responding to shifting economic and demographic patterns. While not a new phenomenon, globalisation is currently challenging for Europe because, for the first time, democracy is the dominant mode of political organisation across the continent, making responses to new challenges more complex than in previous eras. Second, the consolidation of various pan-European bodies adds to these challenges. In particular, the challenge is one of concomitant convergence around core beliefs, rules and institutions while, at the same time, seeking to protect and encourage local, national and regional differences and identities. As the only body to which all European democracies accede, the Council of Europe has an important role to play in balancing these challenges.

Europeanisation, of course, also represents one of the great opportunities for democracy across Europe. As well as achieving consensus on particular issues, the umbrella of the Council of Europe provides a strong institutional framework for co-operation, learning and policy transfer across Europe. This opportunity is particularly evident in relation to the adoption of new technologies to support or enhance democracy. The Council recognized this opportunity early on and has taken a number of steps to support the effective use of technologies.

The problems, challenges and opportunities set out in this chapter are, of course, only an overview of the main issues that the Council recognises. There remains a wide range of other issues that this chapter has not explored. However, understanding the issues in terms of specific problems, wider challenges and emerging opportunities allows the developing principles of the Council to be explored in more detail. These principles are the subject of the next chapter.

Chapter 3 : The core principles of European democracy

To understand the effectiveness of the Council’s democratic activities it is necessary to address the direction in which democracy is evolving across Europe and the principles that the Council, and related organisations, are seeking to promote. Some of these principles are self-evident and have been clearly articulated in a range of documents throughout the life of the Council. Others remain more implicit and need further elaboration. This chapter provides an analysis of the main democratic principles that the Council of Europe is seeking to promote across its member states. In particular, it highlights the Council’s own understanding of these issues and principles, as set out in its various texts. It will also examine the main instruments that it uses to pursue these activities.

This exercise is, by necessity, a critical one. While there is common agreement across Europe that democracy faces some significant challenges, the causes of these challenges and possible solutions to them is more contentious. Even where an overarching approach to particular challenges is shared, the problems identified and solutions implemented are likely to vary between countries. The widespread experimentation that has taken place with e-voting across Europe provides an illustrative example of such contiguous convergence and divergence. One of the main justifications for introducing e-voting in different countries has been to address the widely experienced problem of declining electoral turnout. However, implementation strategies for e-voting vary considerably, from a publicly-procured generic package in the Netherlands through to a programme of locally organised and highly differentiated experiments in the United Kingdom.44 The implementation of e-voting is also raising different challenges in various countries. In the French town of Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy, an Internet voting experiment for the 2002 Presidential election caused considerable concern for security because the election data was initially to be processed by an overseas company in New York, even though this same company ( was already providing Internet voting facilities for many other European countries.45 In Spain, it is the technical capacity to ensure the security of the individual vote that appears to be causing the most concern.46 Understanding democratic challenges at a pan-European level, therefore, is complex: even where countries are apparently adopting the same tools or technologies in response to supposedly similar challenges, the implementation strategies and political responses vary considerably. Working through this complexity of political and cultural diversity is a significant challenge for pan-European organisations.

Discussions of democracy add to this complexity. Despite a common philosophical and cultural heritage that is, arguably, shared by all Europeans, democracy has emerged in different historical contexts in each country and has been developed through varying institutional forms. Institutional structures and the importance of particular conventions or practices reflect the past experience of politics in individual countries. Despite an expanding literature on policy learning across countries, the significance and operation of particular institutional forms owes more to the developments within a country than to learning from the experiences of other countries. Consequently, there is no single form of democracy that dominates the European horizon and there remains considerable divergence in both the conceptualisation and enactment of democracy across Europe.

Having recognised the complexity and considerable diversity of Europe’s democratic practice, however, it is also necessary to recognise the extent of convergence that the Council of Europe, the European Union and other pan-European bodies have encouraged in the past half century. Many countries have developed new democratic forms despite the absence of democratic practices in their recent history. Longer-standing democracies have also evolved during the same period. As a consequence, there is a degree of harmonisation across these various countries in terms of both the democratic principles that they are seeking to enact and the standards and practices that are embodied in their various institutions. Moreover, they are all being subjected to similar experiences that raise similar challenges. While the way in which particular institutions mediate these challenges may vary, there remains a shared experience that can be shaped and developed through organisations such as the Council of Europe. This chapter analyses the way in which the Council has helped individual countries to recognise the challenges and to articulate the core principles of democracy.

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