Onto the EU’s response to far-right movements and the future of democracy

Written by Maria Gonzalez

In the past decades, the European Union has been portrayed as a paradigm of a stable, democratic, economic, and political system (Bellamy & Lord, 2021). Nonetheless, recently an increasing number of critics question the democratic capabilities of the Union citing ‘democratic deficit’ as a significant issue. The main idea behind this article is to assess whether the European Union can still be considered as a democratic entity in spite of a democratic deficit. We will also cover the main challenges the Union faces, focusing on the implications of the recent far-right wave across member states. We then talk about future works to be done.

According to EurLex (2021), a democratic deficit is defined as ‘lack of democracy in the EU institutions and their decision-making procedures, which is making them (EU institutions) inaccessible to the ordinary citizen due to their complexity’. A ‘democratic deficit’ therefore raises concerns on whether the European Union’s project is still achieving what it aimed and aims to attain: maintaining stability and democracy in the member states. 

A democratic deficit in the EU institutions, therefore, hits the foundational idea of the European Union, pushing power away from nationals to member states. Under this concern, European citizens’ voices are excluded from European institutions. This in turn, fosters a technocratic and disengaged Union. When looking into the reason for the deficit, literature is disunited – with ideas ranging from the lack of party competition and European political loopholes (Follesdal & Hix, 2006), to the absence of a European common demos across EU nationals (Bellamy, 2021), from the dilemma between size and participation in a representative government (Jensen, 2009) to the need to better listen to the voices of Europeans as a means of legitimising and empowering the European project (Dobson, 2012).

On top of this, the European Union has recently faced several challenges which are de-facto jeopardising its future. Some of the widely known challenges include Brexit, constituting the first time in history that a European Member State votes to opt out of the EU project; and Covid-19, a major health and economic crisis. But aside from these two major challenges, far-right waves have gained more acceptance in some of the EU states including Poland, Hungary, France, Italy, and Spain. These parties all share Eurosceptic, anti-liberal, and anti-Europeanised views against policies coming from Brussels. Their mantra: to ‘gain back their sovereignty’ in several policy fields is therefore to get the power vested to the Union back within the individual states.

European democratic deficit and far-right movements

A democratic deficit in the European Union has long been a recurrent area of research in the past decades. Some authors strongly condemn the existence of this deficit, citing citizens as the main cause and strongly condemning them for the existence of this deficit, stating that it is the citizens’ lack of engagement to the actual governance of EU institutions that allows the democratic deficit to prevail. Numerous authors instead agree that this deficit can have a significant impact on the EU project, and lead to disenchantment and rising Euroscepticism among European individuals.

Looking at the causes of democratic deficit, most authors agree that the lack of a unified conception of what being “European” means”. European ‘citizenship’ has been hard to grasp as a unified idea, indeed given the economic, political, and social disparities across the different member states in regard to their approach to democratic standards (Bellamy & Lord, 2021). The European commitment to democracy and shared democratic values started with the mere accession process. The ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ requires candidate states to abide by two important values: democracy and rule of law. Although the Copenhagen Criteria has always ensured that the European Union was a paradigm of democratic standards in the global sphere, recent threats such as those seen in Poland and Hungary could change the course of history.

Other highly debated ideas in literature link democratic backsliding and globalisation to far-right parties and democratic deficit. Indeed, regarding democratic backsliding, it is seen as the result of the exploitation by far-right parties of the misconnection between voters and policies being made by the traditional EU institutions. Globalization has also been a factor of dispute, with authors such as Swank & Betz (2003) arguing about its role and the notion of the welfare state as a necessary condition to mitigate the rise of far-right parties in Europe.

Our inquiry stems from the analysis of the recent identity problem suffered by the Union, where far-right parties are widespread across Europe. Whilst far-right movements are not a recent phenomenon, the current right-wing wave’s political agenda is to undermine the European political project as such, and therefore question the future of the Union as a provider of a desirable political and economic model. Karl (2018) argues that their main idea is not about leaving the Union, as they would be missing out on the benefits they gain in the shape of funds or remittances, but to fundamentally change the EU from within. This concept, defined by the idea of ‘Far-right 2.0’, is expected to be of extreme importance in the coming years, especially after Brexit and the Covid pandemic (Crosset, Tanner & Campana; 2018).  For this reason, we need to further explore the notion of far-right waves across Europe and the effect they may be having on the strength and legitimacy of European democracies.

Analysis: far-right wave and its effect on European democracies

To what extent is the EU still considered a democratic entity, considering its reaction to the recent anti-European far-right wave questioning the future of the project?

European politics have recently suffered a change, which can be seen from the shifting voting priorities and the growing influence of the notion of ‘illiberal democracies’ around Europe (Mudde, 2019). These governments wish to undermine common European democratic standards, such as the freedom of speech and media and judiciary independence. As such, they represent a risk to the foundational mantras of the Union, sustained on the maintenance of stable, peaceful, and democratic regimes.

Whether this democratic regime will survive the current threats posed by countries as Poland or Hungary remains unknown in the long-term but can nonetheless be derived in the present time. Current challenges, in the face of Brexit, the migration issue or Covid-19 may have fuelled the far-right populism and their discourse on the necessity to bring back national sovereignty and supremacy over European laws and norms.

The democratic legitimacy of the European Union in recent times, given the threat posed by the spread of the far-right movement across the continent, can be observed by looking at the EU’s response, included under the ‘European Democracy Action Plan’ (European Commission, 2020). These items include the protection of free and fair elections, media freedom and pluralism, and the countering of disinformation, together with the traditional ideas of rule of law and independence of the judiciary. Some of these items have been widely contested by the Hungarian and Polish governments, as the recent judicial case stating Polish national law as supreme to European law, thus contravening one of the core principles of the Union, i.e., the supremacy of European law over national laws. Nonetheless, these threats can be understood inside the idea of democratic backsliding: ‘gradual, deliberate but open-ended process of de-democratisation’ (Sitter & Bakke, 2019). The current issue is that, as shown by the previous literature, the European Union lacks both the political will and the policy tools to deal with this problem, which is why the current member states’ threats are not receiving major backlash in terms of sanctions. The EU is thus finding itself in a political dilemma between following up on these threats and keeping the status quo.

Conclusions and further research

1. ‘The European Union can still be considered as a democratic entity’

The first conclusion arising from both the state of the art and my personal contributions to the topic is the remark that the EU, despite its ongoing challenges in several policy areas coming from different member states, should still be considered a democratic union. Indeed, a democracy must still maintain some core values and freedoms to ensure free and fair elections, free government, independence of the judiciary, and rule of law… Nonetheless, many illiberal regimes which are gaining importance in EU politics still question these values and freedoms. It is for this reason that the Union must tackle these threats for the future prospect of the European project.

2. ‘The existence of a European democratic deficit and democratic backsliding’

Even though the EU is a democratic entity, it still possesses some conflictual traits jeopardising its future integrity. One of these is the abovementioned idea of democratic deficit, present in the shape of a perceived mismatch between European citizens and the EU institutions they democratically appointed to rule for them. This is in fact fostering a climate of alienation from European politics and hence leading the path for radical, anti-European ideas to gain importance in the political and social realms. Follesdal and Hix (2006) define the democratic deficit of the Union in terms of the party contestation at the national level and the voter’s connection to the roles of command, i.e., the EU institutions. Following this line of thought, there is the theory of democratic backsliding, the gradual and open-ended process of de-democratization that some members states are currently undergoing. Under this wave of illiberal regimes gaining importance in European political discourse, it is a fact that the Union is currently being questioned on its core principles. 

A portion of the literature does not share the theory of the EU having a deficit in its democratic standards. Moravcsik (2014) focuses on democratic legitimacy as a self-explanatory variable to deny the existence of a democratic deficit, based on the ideas of philosophical coherence and pragmatic appropriateness of European standards.

In conclusion, the EU, although maintaining high democratic standards across its member states, is still suffering a wave of democratic backsliding, embedded inside the theory of authoritarian equilibrium (Kelemen, 2020) and the policy dilemma.

3. ‘Far-right movements constitute a widespread phenomenon across Europe’

Far-right movements have been widespread across several member states in recent times. Although the concept of the far-right is not new, recent crises suffered in Europe have exponentially fuelled its spread, leading to these parties being in government or having high voting shares. The reasons behind this increase go from the voters’ scepticism of mainstream parties after their handling of previous crises (Mudde, 2019), the mobilization of an anti-immigration and anti-Europeanization discourse (Castelli, 2021) or the sum of anti-immigration and unstable national identification in particular regions inside Europe, as Central Eastern Europe (Kende & Krekó, 2020). Moreover, the unification of these parties under the umbrella of European institutions, mainly the European Parliament, represents a threat to the future legislation of the Union and its democratic standards. 

Summing up, far-right movements in Europe are not a recent phenomenon, but they have shifted their political discourse in the last decade. As seen by some EU governments, their threats to European laws are not matched by their willingness to leave the Union, but by their desire to undermine it from within. Their political agenda seeks to regain competence at the national level while compromising the main principles of liberal democracies. An example is their control over the media (Ellinas, 2010), as a means of deterring negative backlash on the government. This is supported by the transformation of mass media, in the shape of tabloidization of political discourse (Mudde, 2016), making the far-right message more accessible to the general electorate.

4. ‘Potential solutions and future prospect of the Union’

After considering the EU as a democratic entity, and analysing its current challenges, i.e., democratic deficit and backsliding, it is important to look for solutions to these issues, as well as future prospects for the Union. Some of the steps taken by the EU in this regard are the increasing means for citizens to actively participate in the decision-making, as can be seen by the Conference on the Future of the Union; or the action plans, such as the European Democracy Action Plan, devoted to making European democracies more resilient to illiberal threats. Nonetheless, the EU is still facing a critical dilemma by its lack of action and inability to control the un-democratic threats posed by some states. In moving forward, the Union should call for stronger policy and economic means to be able to retaliate against members for jeopardising the current status quo. A failure to do so could indeed lead to the disintegration of the Union in the long term, provoked by the citizens’ disenchantment.


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