In a debate hosted by the Columbia Maison Française, panelists attempted to determine whether Europe is a democracy, exploring what defines democracy and if there is a difference between the words “democracy” and “democratic.” 

Tuesday morning, the question “Is Europe democratic?” was posed by Professor Paul LeClerc (director of Columbia Global Centers and Chair of the Advisory Board of the Columbia Maison Française) to a group of panelists. The question is jarring and straight forward, yet leaves much room for interpretation: what does it mean to be a democracy? 

Professor Nadia Urbinati, the Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, attempted to give a definition to the word democracy. One basic element that helps us recognize democracy, she stated, is a constitution. Many European countries have constitutions that are divided into a list of rights that are not to be infringed upon by the government and descriptions conserving institutions as well as the domains of political action. Democracies also need representation. As Professor Urbinati explained, democracy cannot be conceived without an electoral, cyclical, and regular system. This system produces representations in government which translate into seats in parliament, which has the specific power of lawmaking. Representation also leads and shakes the relationship between citizens and institutions and creates a sort of tension between moral legitimacy and legal legitimacy. 

Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria and on the board of trustees of the European Council on Foreign Relations, expanded on this definition. He pointed out that having the ability to lose an election and leave power is a central component of a functioning democracy. A person in power losing an election implies a certain level of working competition. Krastev also points out that when you ask someone what a democracy is, the answer changes depending on whether citizens or government officials answer. Citizens are more interested in how they can influence government and lawmaking in their answer. 

But perhaps a more technical definition of democracy was offered up by Professor Luuk van Middlelaar, a historian, philosopher, and former cabinet member of Herman Van Rompuy, former Prime Minister of Belgium and President of the European Council. He pointed to this idea that we can vote out officials to create organized rupture and discontinuities which don’t upset the system as a whole. His example was Winston Churchill who was voted out of office post-1945 because the people needed someone to build a welfare state and there would be someone else better suited to the job. However, Professor van Middlelaar acknowledged that it is impossible to vote everyone out at the same time, and thus we cannot achieve this great element of discontinuity. The inability to achieve such a discontinuity is dependent on checks and balances and weather that is a weakness or strength of democracy is up to interpretation.  

It is important to note that this word “democracy”, so far, throughout the event, seems to have been used interchangeably with the word “democratic”. Rui Tavares, a Portuguese politician and former member of the European Parliament wanted to draw a distinction between the two words. In a very clear-cut and definitive way, Tavares simply stated, “the EU is democratic. The EU is not a democracy.” The European Union may be a democratic club of 27 democracies, but that doesn’t make it a transnational democracy equivalent. 

Krastev further explained why the EU is not a democracy. The right of the majority to govern, a component of democracy, is missing in the case of the European Union. It is unclear who the majority, in this case: the people or the countries themselves? To challenge even the notion that the states within the EU are democracies, Krastev raised this point of how countries outside the EU are more democratic because they do not have obligations to those not part of the country. This is different from how countries within the EU must follow certain expectations and rules that other, non-EU countries need not follow by not being part of the EU. 

As the concept of democracy has become increasingly important to American culture and values (Americans view themselves as a “city on a hill”, one that inspires worldwide freedom), it is sort of shocking to wonder if a place like Europe, home to ancient cities who “founded” democracy, is not a democracy. The word “democracy” seems increasingly polarized in the 21st century, but open discussions about this idea in connection to Europe helps combat such a narrative.

It was hard to follow the panelist’s conversation at times, as I do not have extensive knowledge of the EU. But the panel made me realize how much focus is given to US politics in classes and how difficult that could be on international students. Questioning whether Europe is a democracy has made me reflect on how I define democracy and brought a new lens through which I gaze upon various American institutions. Although the EU is unique, just the idea that one could question its democratic nature and even make a distinction between the words “democracy” and “democratic” is new to me and has shifted my perspective.  
But, I wonder, are there any ways to make the EU more of a democracy? Professor Urbinati suggested finding a sort of power within the EU that gives a sense of communication and gives the public a voice for their problems. She equated this sort of power to the one the ancient Romans had instituted for citizens to petition. Tavares also added that we can only save the national democracies if we democratize European policy and not have national states disappear per se, but create something new. He explained, “the history of democracy is to democratize what was, until now, un-democratizable.” Surely major changes in the world like COVID-19 and the increasing threat of global warming perhaps have questioned the structure of the EU as it has in other nations, but, of course, change takes time. A recording of the event will be made available here.

European Union flag via pixabay