The state of democracy in Europe
International IDEA, Stockholm, November 2023
Although Europe remains the strongest-performing region in the GSoD Indices, there has been worrying deterioration in some of the region’s long-standing high performers in the past five years.
1- In 2022, there was a deterioration in the scores of long-standing and strong democracies, including Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Declines have affected a number of indicators, the most common being Rule of Law (especially Predictable Enforcement) and Freedom of the Press. Although these countries remain high-performing in most factors, the declines highlight the importance of constant vigilance in future-proofing democracy.
2- In spite of declines in Hungary and Poland, Central Europe was the epicentre of democratic growth, becoming the second-highest performing subregion with regard to Rule of Law. Slovenia experienced a remarkable democratic rebound and is now among those performing in the top 25 per cent with regard to the Absence of Corruption at the global level.
3- As a supranational CI, the European Union mobilized intra-EU unity on support and aid for Ukraine, and took steps to revive the enlargement process and to protect democratic norms in its member states. Moldova and Ukraine gained EU candidacy status and the European Council reviewed Georgia’s membership application, indicating that it would be ready to grant candidate status to the country once certain steps had been taken. The accession processes in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia were also reinvigorated, and Kosovo was granted the long-awaited visa-free status. Inside the bloc, the EU also finally took concrete actions in the ongoing rule of law disputes with Hungary and Poland.
4- The clearly non-democratic group of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia and Türkiye has drifted away from the rest of Europe, performing well below the European average across most indicators of democracy.
The global state of democracy in 2023 is complex, fluid and unequal.
The global state of democracy in 2023 is complex, fluid and unequal. Across every region of the world, democracy has continued to contract, with declines in at least one indicator of democratic performance in half of the countries covered in the Report. Measured in terms of the areas of improvement and decline within each country, 2022 was the sixth consecutive year in which more countries experienced net declines in democratic processes than net improvements. This six-year pattern of decline is the longest of this kind since our records began in 1975. In short, democracy is still in trouble, stagnant at best, and declining in many places. But there are a few green shoots
of hope (notably, corruption falling and surprisingly high levels of political participation). Indeed, while The Global State of Democracy 2023 shows some declines in countries that had been thought to be healthy democracies, at the same time there were encouraging improvements in countries where the level of oppression has been constant for years.
Against this background, this year’s report highlights the role of so-called countervailing institutions in stopping the erosion of democratic institutions and reacting to the entrenchment of authoritarian forces.
The term goes beyond the traditional understanding of ‘checks and balances’ to encompass those governmental and non-governmental institutions, organizations and movements that check the aggrandizement of power and balance the distribution of power to ensure that decision makers regularly integrate popular priorities into policy.
Countervailing institutions include relatively new entities, such as human rights organizations and electoral management bodies, as well as civil society networks, popular movements and investigative journalists, which all play an irreplaceable role in ensuring democracy continues to be of and by the people.
International IDEA analyses democratic trends using four top-level categories of performance:
- Rule of Law
It found notable declines in Representation (including in Credible Elections and Effective Parliament) and in Rule of Law (with declines in Judicial Independence, and Personal Integrity and Security). These setbacks were seen in every single region of the world. They corresponded to events such as the continuing wave of coups d’état in Africa (most recently in Niger and Gabon) and the collapse of representative institutions in Haiti.
In the Rights category, overall declines were not significant, but stagnation at a low level is not a situation to celebrate or tolerate. Moreover, many countries experienced declines in Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly and Association, sometimes connected to deteriorations in security. In such contexts, the fundamental enabling conditions of democracy, including opportunities for debate and dialogue (which drive innovation), are at risk of disappearing. The diverse ways in which these declines find expression range from the extreme measures against organized crime in El Salvador to the misuse of laws against misinformation in many countries in Western Asia.
Rule of Law
Turning to the Rule of Law category, after many years of stagnation in levels of corruption, there were improvements in countries across all regions. The picture was not unambiguously positive, however, because many of the countries making progress combatting corruption—for example, Angola, Benin, Burundi, Kazakhstan and Mexico—are facing challenges in other indicators of democracy. Nevertheless, initial indications are positive.
“The most encouraging category was Participation, where scores remained surprisingly high even in countries with a low level of democratic performance at an institutional level.”
While there were still more countries with declines in Participation than advances, the picture here was much less negative than in other areas of democratic performance. As the report details, there are also encouraging cases in many countries where political participation has had policy impacts.
Although Europe remains the strongest-performing region in the GSoD Indices, there has been worrying deterioration in some of the region’s long-standing high performers. Some of these democracies have seen declines across a number of indicators over the past five years, including Germany, where Credible Elections have been marred by challenges such as weak oversight and campaign finance issues, and Austria, where Rule of Law and Civil Liberties saw declines due to the abuse of public funds, and there was a deterioration in Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press following efforts by the former ruling elite to exert influence over the media. Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko was until recently commonly referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’, has, together with Azerbaijan, Russia and Türkiye, drifted even further away from the regional mainstream, possibly foretelling a return of non-democratic political blocs on the continent (Economist 2021).
Many countries sit between the two poles of high-performing—but modestly declining—Northern and Western European states and Europe’s established non-democracies, with international forces providing competing lodestars for domestic political actors. Alongside other challenges, such as persistent inflation and weather patterns exacerbated by climate change, the socio-economic pressures created by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine have placed differentiated stresses on European democratic institutions.
In Georgia, high inflation and significant Russian immigration has gone hand in hand with heightened political polarization. Mass protests and the resilience of citizens there forced the ruling party to drop a controversial ‘foreign agents’ law, which posed a direct threat to the media and civil society (Sekhniashvili 2023). Uncertainty in the Western Balkans has continued, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader of the Republika Srpska and a Putin loyalist, has proceeded with secessionist threats and separatist rhetoric, including the adoption of a law rejecting the state-level Constitutional Court’s decisions (Kurtic 2023; Sito-Sucic 2023; EURACTIV 2023), and in Kosovo, where tensions escalated in the Serbian-dominated northern municipalities (Edwards 2023).
Democracy in Europe, both inside and outside the 27 EU member states, is heavily influenced by the EU’s legislative and non-legislative initiatives, many of which are aimed at defending and promoting democratic values. Recent EU initiatives have focused on fostering civic participation, media freedom and ensuring the integrity of elections, especially with regard to countering disinformation and foreign interference (European Commission n.d., 2022b). The promotion of gender equality internally and externally is also a high priority for the EU (European Commission 2020). Despite its key role as a supranational CI, the EU is not without its flaws. The European Parliament’s ‘Qatargate’ corruption scandal has rocked the EU and has led to reforms, which are pending as the European Parliament prepares for the 2024 elections (Liboreiro and Psara 2023; Cook 2023; European Parliament 2022b).
Hungary and Poland, both of which experienced significant declines in five key indicators between 2017 and 2022, are the most notable examples illustrating the bloc’s limited ability to exert more direct influence over the (non-)democratic trajectory of its member states (see Box 6.1). Despite the fact that the European Commission has frozen billions of euros in funding for Hungary and Poland due to violations of rights and the rule of law, both countries remain generally unswayed in their direction, beyond some minor changes in approach.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia will continue to have a significant impact on both regional and domestic dynamics in Europe over the coming years. Security concerns will remain paramount, especially for neighbouring countries or those involved in disputes with Russia or its proxies. Additionally, Europe’s political and social institutions have been, and will continue to be, challenged by the influx of Ukrainian refugees, the ongoing migration crisis in the Mediterranean, an energy crisis, inflation and recessions, as well as increased diplomatic and financial efforts to provide support to Ukraine.
For the full report,visit: https://www.idea.int/gsod/2023/chapters/europe/