The Future of Democracy in Europe: Technology and the Evolution of Representation
To the extent that perceptions of a crisis in liberal democracy in Europe can be confirmed, this paper investigates the nature of the problem and its causes, and asks what part, if any, digital technology plays in it.
A woman writes a note on the Savita Halappanavar mural in Dublin on 26 May 2018, following a referendum on the 36th amendment to Ireland’s constitution. The referendum result was overwhelmingly in favour of removing the country’s previous near-universal ban on abortion. Photo: Getty Images.
- There is a widespread sense that liberal democracy is in crisis, but little consensus exists on the specific nature and causes of the crisis. In particular, there are three prisms through which the crisis is usually seen: the rise of ‘populism’, ‘democratic deconsolidation’, and a ‘hollowing out’ of democracy. Each reflects normative assumptions about democracy.
- The exact role of digital technology in the crisis is disputed. Despite the widely held perception that social media is undermining democracy, the evidence for this is limited. Over the longer term, the further development of digital technology could undermine the fundamental preconditions for democracy – though the pace and breadth of technological change make predictions about its future impact difficult.
- Democracy functions in different ways in different European countries, with political systems on the continent ranging from ‘majoritarian democracies’ such as the UK to ‘consensual democracies’ such as Belgium and Switzerland. However, no type seems to be immune from the crisis. The political systems of EU member states also interact in diverse ways with the EU’s own structure, which is problematic for representative democracy as conventionally understood, but difficult to reform.
- Political parties, central to the model of representative democracy that emerged in the late 18th century, have long seemed to be in decline. Recently there have been some signs of a reversal of this trend, with the emergence of parties that have used digital technology in innovative ways to reconnect with citizens. Traditional parties can learn from these new ‘digital parties’.
- Recent years have also seen a proliferation of experiments in direct and deliberative democracy. There is a need for more experimentation in these alternative forms of democracy, and for further evaluation of how they can be integrated into the existing institutions and processes of representative democracy at the local, regional, national and EU levels.
- We should not think of democracy in a static way – that is, as a system that can be perfected once and for all and then simply maintained and defended against threats. Democracy has continually evolved and now needs to evolve further. The solution to the crisis will not be to attempt to limit democracy in response to pressure from ‘populism’ but to deepen it further as part of a ‘democratization of democracy’.
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