Conservative Discontent with Democracy in Europe?

Exploring current voices of discontent with the state of democracy in Europe, DRI and the Mercator Foundation held a roundtable dialogue in Berlin on 7 November with conservative parties and opinion makers from 10 European countries. The participants’ biggest point of contention was their perception that public debate was too narrow, with non-mainstream opinions being labeled “undemocratic” or “populist”. While most participants felt that the EU’s legal framework was open enough for member states to pursue different social policies, including conservative ones, some pointed out that many EU policies had a decidedly liberal-progressive agenda, giving little space for other views.

Twenty participants from Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Germany, Denmark, the UK, Ireland, Spain and Portugal confirmed the validity of European norms in democratic institutions, such as the independence of the judiciary and a free and plural media. They agreed, for example, that the Polish government and Parliament’s treatment of the Constitutional Tribunal was not in line with the concept of an independent judiciary; however, some said, it ought to be seen in a context where previous governments had stacked the media and the judiciary in their favour. Many felt that the EU and other European institutions applied double standards – giving more attention to problems of right-wing governments. All agreed however that a complete overhaul of existing – supposedly independent – institutions was not the way forward for building sustainable, stable states based on the rule of law.

Some participants emphasised the need to draw a clear line at extremist parties. “Some populist parties are not conservative and some are even fascist. They try to confuse all limits and political lines,” said one participant. Others expressed the view that an overbearing liberal-progressive discourse pushed conservatives towards populism. The participants agreed that democracy was not an anything goes concept: universal human rights remain a cornerstone of Europe’s legal architecture and thinking, but some felt that more emphasis should be placed on human rights for all, rather than stressing minority rights.

While participants insisted that public discourse was too narrow, they also believed parties and opinion-makers should respect the dignity of all human beings in their speech. Many felt that empathy with other was missing in public discourse.

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