The fall of European democracies

14 June 2022 /

3 min

The Economist Intelligence Unit

On February 10th 2022, the British group Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published its long-awaited democracy index of 2021. But before commenting on this, a little background is necessary. The publication of the democracy index began in 2006, and since then has provided citizens with an overview of the state of democracy in 165 countries in the world. To measure the evolution of such democracies, the EIU analyzes five variables: electoral processes and pluralism, functioning of the government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties.

Democracy in Europe: norm or exception?

The report is clear and quite concerning: only 21 countries obtained the status of ‘full democracies’. In western Europe, 12 countries are considered as such: Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, the UK and Austria. Nordic countries remain at the top of the score, occupying five of the top six positions in the global ranking. The rest of the western European democracies are considered as ‘flawed’: France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain among others; or “hybrid regimes” like in the case of Turkey. Spain, which was listed as a “full democracy” a year ago, was downgraded to ‘flawed democracy’ in 2021. In eastern Europe the findings are worse, since all of its democracies are considered as ‘flawed’. This democratic struggle reflects a global trend related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, 2022 is the second consecutive year in which the global democracy score crashes.

The impact of COVID-19 on democracy

The global public health crisis seems to be to blame for the decline of democracy in 2021. Only 45,7% of the world’s population, according to data from the EIU, lives in a democratic regime, while 27,1% live under an authoritarian one. Indeed, the pandemic has led to a drastic reduction of civil liberties through measures such as lockdowns, travel restrictions, the imposition of virtual covid certificates and many other coercive rules. On top of that, the long-standing social and economic issues that could not be addressed during the crisis, together with the ban of public demonstrations, have contributed to the growing frustration of the population. At the wake of the covid crisis, we can only see that euroscepticism has been dangerously increasing across Europe. Many have questioned the capacity of the European Union to address the crisis, which according to some has led to serious economic, psychological and health-related issues.

The path towards the regeneration of our democracies?

In 2020, the European Commission launched its ‘Action plan for democracy in Europe’. It has the aim of “strengthening Europe’s democratic legitimacy and thus help it meet the challenges posed by the unprecedented health, economic and climate crises it is facing, in strict respect of its common values and principles”. Despite this initiative, it seems that the Commission is struggling to reach the expected results, as previously seen in the Democracy Index. This clearly demonstrates the difficulty of achieving democratic goals during a state of emergency. Indeed, the global public health crisis has worsened pre-existing trends, such as the increase of technocratic procedures in the management of society in western European states, which has negatively impacted its level of democracy.

However, as we are slowly emerging from the crisis, we can expect the EU and its national governments to learn from their mistakes and to try to ‘make up’ with their people. The European Commission is currently leading events such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, which gives European citizens an opportunity to speak up about what kind of Europe they want to live in. As Ursula von der Leyen pointed out, the Covid-19 has robbed many liberties and opportunities to young people. This is why 2022 has been chosen to be the European Year of Youth, an initiative that aims at highlighting the importance of the younger generations for the construction of the Europe of tomorrow.

[This article was first published in the issue 36 of the magazine]

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