The crisis of democracy and the role of the State in today’s Europe
- Parliamentary Assembly
- Assembly debate on
27 June 2012 (23rd and 24th Sittings) (see Doc. 12955, report of the Committee
on Political Affairs and Democracy, rapporteur: Mr Gross; and Doc. 12977, opinion
of the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development,
rapporteur: Earl of Dundee). Text adopted by the Assembly on 27
June 2012 (24th Sitting).
1 In 2011, democracy was at the centre
of European public debate and the object of very controversial perceptions.
For those who were encouraged by the strong peoples’ movements of
the Arab Spring, 2011 even became “the year of democracy”.
2 However, for many other Europeans, democracy is one of the
main victims of the financial crisis which started in 2008. This
confirms the conclusions of the 2008 and 2010 Assembly debates on
the state of democracy in Europe, according to which European democracies
are in decline and are experiencing a crisis which undermines the
trust of many citizens in their political institutions. In 2012,
some Assembly debates are on current “threats to democracy” posed
by Europe-wide austerity programmes and their impact upon social and
democratic rights, upon local and regional authorities and, in particular,
upon young people, who stand to suffer most from the economic and
3 The crisis has, in particular, revealed the limits of the
power of democracy and has aggravated public distrust in democracy.
In a broad sense, it has been the consequence of some serious shortcomings
in the functioning of democratic institutions, which were not able
to anticipate, prevent, and quickly and adequately react to it without
causing hardship to the people whom they are meant to serve and
4 There is growing concern among Europeans who are witnessing
the decline of their democratic capacity to cope with the consequences
of the international financial crisis.
5 For these Europeans, it has become evident that their national
democracies are unable to protect them from the negative consequences
of a financial crisis. As they do not want to forego the benefits
of democracy, some demand instead that democracy be developed at
the transnational level in order to provide European institutions
with the legitimacy to intervene and limit the market and economic
forces in the public interest and wherever such forces have a negative
impact upon social and democratic rights or upon the environment.
In order to win back the confidence of their citizens, States
must meet the challenges now confronting them, which include the
need to fully debate the conception, implementation and evolution
of the eurozone. These challenges also include diminished trust
in representative democratic bodies and political parties, the migration
of millions of people within Europe or the immigration of others
to Europe, the inability of the nation State to deal with certain
problems beyond its control, and increased extremism and nationalism
across Europe – an issue already examined by the Assembly in its Resolution 1754 (2010)
the fight against extremism: achievements, deficiencies and failures.
7 The global crisis is a consequence of many complex economic
factors and regulation deficiencies, some of which result from previous
8 In a number of European countries, political processes have
thus recently come under extreme pressure, on the one hand from
markets and international financial institutions and, on the other,
9 Faced with the collapse of their economies and, in some cases,
the risk of sovereign default, governments have implemented harsh
austerity policies, including lowering of wages and social benefits
and increasing taxes. Confronted with a sharp drop in living standards,
which have put large segments of population near or below the poverty
threshold, people in many European countries have taken to the streets
to protest, at times violently, against government policies perceived
as the diktat of the markets, and against being asked to pay the
cost of the crisis.
10 The present problems facing democracy are the accumulated
result of many years of bad governance, political short-sightedness,
and unwillingness of governments and citizens to face reality.
11 In an increasingly globalised economy focused on the financial
markets, there is a dissonance between the impact financial agents
may have on a sovereign State’s economy and the fact that their
interests may not coincide. Furthermore, the concentration of power
in the hands of globally integrated financial networks carries even
more risks for the stability of nation States and governments.
12 A sound State is not usually possible without a lively and
strong democracy. Likewise, a strong democracy needs a sound State
in order to be able to fulfil its potential and to meet the expectations
of citizens, in particular as regards social justice. To this end,
all means of making a State more accountable should be considered,
including the development of close links with representative civil
society organisations, the encouragement of a fearless press, diverse
in its ownership, and the promotion of an educated citizenry.
13 After the outbreak of the crisis, States turned out to be
the last resort for saving the market economy: the complete disintegration
of the financial markets and private banks has only been prevented
as a result of State intervention by national governments, which
sharply increased sovereign debts.
14 Refinancing private companies from public budgets, and in
an opaque manner, resulted in an additional tax burden on citizens
and further eroded their trust in the fairness and efficiency of
15 In order to solve the current crisis and devise long-term
stabilisation strategies, States should regain or develop capacities
to regulate international financial markets. This should also include
the ability and political option to tax financial transactions if
there is international agreement to this end.
16 Sound States should develop strategies to reduce sovereign
debts which, at the same time, preserve economic growth and social
integration. This goal includes a State’s capacity to collect taxes
and adapt taxation levels to the current and long-term needs of
society. This also requires that tax levels are acceptable to the
majority of citizens and seen as a fair sharing of tax burdens.
17 Sound States should also be capable of developing strategies
for growth and the modernisation of society, particularly through
investments in new infrastructure and sustainable development projects,
notably for energy saving and the use of renewable energy. Wherever
appropriate, planning regulations should facilitate and stimulate
18 For the future, sound States will need to increase their capacity
for co-operation with other States since many policy areas are already
too large for most nation States to regulate. Decision-making bodies
should in particular be based on more democratic legitimacy at the
European level, where the development of true economic governance
could be the next step in the political integration process.
Sound States are based on strong democracies. To become strong,
democracies need to make existing democratic structures more representative.
This is possible with the inclusion of direct democratic elements which
have to be carefully designed in order to increase citizens’ participation
and to promote active citizenship, as suggested by the Parliamentary
Assembly in its Resolution
on the promotion of active citizenship in
20 All levels of government should be guided by the public interest
rather than the interests of particular stakeholders. Sound States,
capable of performing their main functions and maintaining a high
level of trust among their citizens, need the strength to resist
the abuse of political, administrative or judicial power, and unethical
behaviour such as corruption, favouritism towards private stakeholders
and undue influence by the media or interest groups, as well as
being able to develop strong policies in favour of growth and social cohesion.
Without permanent efforts to strengthen States’ resistance to such
phenomena, citizens’ confidence in decision makers will further
21 An important reference for political decision makers are the
Twelve Principles of Good Democratic Governance at Local Level,
adopted by the Committee of Ministers in March 2008 in the framework
of its Strategy for Innovation and Good Governance at Local Level,
as these are a modern instrument and a useful model for all levels
22 In order to be able to defend, in a sustainable manner, the
European economic and social model and the freedom of citizens to
implement European political values, there is a need to Europeanise
democracy as well as to democratise Europe.
Against this background, the Assembly invites the member States
of the Council of Europe to:
for instance in the framework of the World Forum on Democracy to
be held in Strasbourg in October 2012, the ways in which democracy
can be strengthened by giving it a firmer foothold at all levels
of the nation State and also by reinforcing it at the transnational
23.2 engage in a dialogue with it on the state of democracy
in Europe, so as to consolidate the Council of Europe’s role as
the guardian of democracy throughout greater Europe;
23.3 consider the ways in which this debate can be organised
in member States in order to raise awareness and to explore ways
to strengthen democracy, build sound States and democratise Europe in
order to prevent it from losing further legitimacy.
24 In particular, the Assembly calls on national parliaments
to fulfil their key function to uphold representative democracy
in Europe, to reflect and advise on the best ways in which modern
democracy might adapt. In its own work and debates it resolves to
promote this aim within the 47 member States of the Council of Europe.