Written by Sabrina Nenescu (Ambassador of Denmark)

Edited by Iorgus Cicala


One might ask what are the main values of the European Union (EU). It only takes one click to access the EU portal and get a summarised view of the seven foundational values that the Union supports and promotes. Human dignity, freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights are the landmark characteristics that any EU member state or candidate country should follow and praise (European Union, 2022). So far, the procedure appears to be quite simple: for a happy ending, just accept and embrace these principles. However, the reality is more complex than that.

Typically regarded as the EU’s main pillar and powerhouse, democracy is the central focus of this article. Given its primacy in line with the Copenhagen criteria, all EU members or candidates encounter the concept of democracy at the very beginning of their interaction with the organisation (European Union, n.d.). Adopted in 1993, the criteria state the rules that a country needs to follow to be part of the European bloc. Albeit brief, the list calls for the ability to implement the acquis communautaire at the national legal level, a functioning free market economy, and a democratic institutional framework (Dudley, 2020; European Union, n.d.). Even though it might seem straightforward and easily digestible, the Copenhagen requirements open a few doors of criticism due to their definitional ambiguity (European Commission, n.d.).

If there might be a more precise view of what the community law consists of or what a free market implies, when it comes to democracy, there are no pre-established parameters (European Commission, n.d.; European Union, n.d.). The explanation of democracy consists mainly of theories and relies on different interpretations and contexts (Wetzel & Orbie, 2015). One might argue that the term’s ambiguity is indeed a beneficial characteristic, for it symbolises what democracy stands for: diversity (European Commission, n.d.). For a organisation like the EU, working with a vague understanding of democracy without a clearly determined definition or a quantifiable standard of implementation may pose significant challenges. (European Commission, n.d.; Wetzel & Orbie, 2015).

Justified by the recent decline of democratic values in the European Union, there are mounting concerns about how the EU perceives and manages the requirement of a democratic government for its members. Even if most countries are in a favourable position, the examples of Poland and Hungary still bring distressing results. Democratic backsliding is not new to the world. And nor is it for the European Commission itself. In this regard, with the “New Push for European Democracy” programme, it seems that actions have already been taken on the administrative front. Accordingly, in 2020, the Commission proposed the “European Democracy Action Plan”. Regarding its implementation, the project in question had a deadline set for 2023 and was expected to improve the democratic performance in the EU (Legislative Train Schedule, n.d.; European Commission, n.d.). The current status of the Action Plan, is as of “adopted/completed”, meaning that the proposals where successfully implemented. However, the efficiency of the results are going to be analysed in accordance with the following EU elections (Legislative Train Schedule, n.d.).

Democracy in Europe   

Before delving into the “European Democracy Action Plan”, it is important to understand the reasons behind its formation. The challenges to the EU’s democratic linchpin can be traced back to 2004, when the largest enlargement wave welcomed 10 countries with a non-democratic past.

In most European regions, the hope for democracy once meant freedom from authoritarian or non-democratic control and oppressive rule (i.e., from the Soviet Union). It embodied the advocacy for the rule of law, basic human rights, and civil liberties such as free speech and unencumbered political participation. However, our recent times paint a different picture: one of declining democratic values under weakened legal foundations, restrictions on media independence, and rising illiberal and populist groups (Ágh, 2016; Wixforth, S., & Haddouti, K., 2023).

It must be acknowledged that the deterioration of democracy is not a phenomenon particular to a specific country or a trait endemic to any single society. Instead, there is a discernible trend of consistent decline in the political support for democracy across different countries in different periods (Martini & Quaranta, 2020). The tendency varies  with certain aspects such as the public opinion, which in turn is heavily influenced by the cultural context.

“Euroscepticism” & “De-Europeanisation”

Adding yet another layer of complexity, the present section introduces two other concepts: “Euroscepticism” and “de-Europeanisation”. The latter opposes the ideals of Europeanisation and emphasises the distancing of member states from the EU (Smith, 2021). Deriving partly from de-Europeanisation, Euroscepticism involves the  diminished trust and waning support for the EU and for its integrationist objective (Kaeding et al., 2021). In other words, Euroscepticism is a precondition for de-Europeanisation. The importance of this dialectic is motivated by its particularly noticeable presence in the recently absorbed members (Andreu & Simonelli, 2022; Kaeding et al., 2021). The increase in anti-EU stances leads to the creation of doubt, which consequently fosters the loss of trust in the government and the setback in the EU integration process (Andreu & Simonelli, 2022; Kaeding et al., 2021). At an individual level, the rise of Eurosceptic movements demonstrates that democratic retrogression is not only a matter of national governments, but also a symptom of popular feelings towards the EU (Kaeding et al., 2021). These developments contribute to the decline in democracy and hence undermine the promotion of democratic principles, such as human rights and popular legitimacy (Kaeding et al., 2021).


Following the 2008 financial crisis, there was already a blatant drop in the pro-EU support along with a general disenchantment with politics, a diminishing trust in government, and an erosion of institutional credibility ” (Martini & Quaranta, 2020). Critical events like the 2015 migration crisis and the success of “anti-European movements” (Andreu & Simonelli, 2022), doubled by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and by its measures, have contributed to the ongoing decline of democracy and to the EU’s undermined political backing across member states. In a document where the Commission poses potential questions regarding the Action Plan, the second concern reads as follows: “Why is the Commission putting forward this Action Plan?” (European Commission, 2020). Thus, a commonly discussed issue lies in the rise of ideological  extremism and in the distance between the people and their elected representatives. These phenomena have originated from various problems, including  threats to electoral integrity, hostile working environments for an increasing number of journalists, and a generally worsened socio-economic landscape. Furthermore, an overarching characteristic of the European democratic “crisis” resides in the concentrated efforts to spread false and misleading information, as well as in the manipulation of voters. When phrased in this manner, one might argue that there is nothing particularly new with propaganda campaigns or with fake news. Yet the Commission emphasises not the act itself, but the means used to execute it: the digital arena. With Covid-19, the percentages of disinformation and digital fraud have increased significantly, thereby causing concerns and requiring counter-measures (European Commission; 2020).

Telling instances

To better grasp the problem at hand and discern the challenges, the current section seeks to unpack the Polish case. Even though Poland was required to follow the fundamental Copenhagen Criteria from the very beginning of its integration into the EU, recent debates have brought concerns about its democratic values (Kaeding et al., 2021; Smith, 2021; European Commission, 2023)

Some examples of democratic shortcomings in Poland consist of jeopardised media freedom, judicial corruption, and human rights violations (European Commission, 2021). Poland’s media are viewed as state-controlled propaganda, while legislative amendments to prevent anti-government demonstrations raise further doubts (Wojciech Sadurski, 2019). Already acknowledged by the EU, these practices account for one of the many reasons underpinning the “European Democracy Action Plan”. Beyond technicalities, academics have concluded that a segment of the Polish population can be identified as “inconsistent democrats”, since they support both democratic and authoritarian governments due to historical factors (Konieczna-Sałamatin, 2021). Despite undeniable EU-level concerns, Poland has rejected the community feedback and made the European Council refer the case to the Court of Justice in February 2023 to address the Polish resistance and enforce the European democratic values (European Commission, 2023).

The European Democracy Action Plan

The predicament of democratic decline had already caught the attention of Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, back in 2019. In one of her speeches, she underscored the centrality of people and their rights in the European Union (European Commission, n.d.). Addressing this issue, the freshly introduced European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) outlined a series of  key objectives to promote free and fair elections, enhance democratic participation, support independent media, and combat disinformation (European Commission, 2020).

The motivation behind this proposal stems from the recognition of problems that have led to the erosion of democracy in various member states. For instance, Poland serves as an illustrative case where the media sector lacks proper levels of liberty under a tight government control (Wojciech Sadurski, 2019). It is crucial to note that Poland is just one instance that highlights a broader trend of increasing domestic tolerance for more autocratic governments and declining trust in government and media across various countries (Legislative Train Schedule, n.d.). Consequently, the EDAP was designed to be implemented both at the EU and national level, with a far-reaching perspective to foster worldwide democratic resilience amidst current global challenges (European Commission; 2020).

The European Commission has structured the EDAP around three main pillars, each presenting specific solutions. The first pillar focuses on promoting free and fair elections, incorporating a range of legislative and non-legislative measures. Concrete examples comprise legislation on the transparency of sponsored political content and the revision of rules governing the financing of European political parties. These measures, in turn, have ripple effects on the other two pillars centred on ensuring open and pluralistic media, and on combating discrimination (European Commission, 2020). Notably, the first two pillars are embedded in specific legal acts, namely the “European Media Freedom Act” and the “EU Code of Practice on Disinformation” (European Democracy Action Plan, n.d.). The nuanced approach within the EDAP seeks to address multifaceted challenges and provide a comprehensive strategy to strengthen democratic values within the European Union.


So far, it cannot be denied that democracy must be brought back on track in the EU. But the appropriateness of the “European Democracy Action Plan” as a course of action is under consideration. From a general perspective, although one might argue that it is a necessary action, it is by no means sufficient. As the EDAP is a non-legislative Action Plan with limited legislative components, it must be devised and implemented in the different EU states by their respective governments. This offers the EU members a potentially perilous margin of appreciation, allowing them to interpret and shape the criteria in nationally suitable ways. However, this unhampered leeway brings us back to the core problems behind  the original plan: the EU’s unclarified meaning of democracy and its extolled democratic values.



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