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Last week East-Flanders’ Europe Direct Information Centre hosted a lively debate about the future of the European Union. Senior transatlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund Rosa Balfour and Fidesz MEP Györgi Schöpflin confronted each other on what constitutes democracy and what role it has to play in the future of the EU.

If one considers the last ten years, it becomes painstakingly clear that democracy is no longer taken for granted. The world has witnessed the financial crisis in 2008, which resulted in an economic and eurozone crisis. Then Russia annexed the Crimea, and 2015 witnessed the refugee crisis, followed by the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. All of these contributed to the rise of the populist radical right – not only in Europe, but also around the world.

‘Centre needs to reform’

For Ms. Rosa Balfour, who works for the German Marshall Fund as a close observer of the European Union, the rise of the populist/nationalist radical right should be seen as a consequence rather than a cause of the worldwide decline of democracy. According to her, this decline can be linked to two simultaneous phenomena: the relationship of power and the transnationalisation of policy.

Most pundits who try to explain the rise of the populist radical right refer to the impact of globalization and the view of immigration as an existential threat. However, as Balfour pointedly considers,

why did populism never develop in Ireland or Portugal, which were harshly hit by the economic crisis?Why did populism back in the 1980s thrive in prosperous Northern Europe, with the best welfare system everyone else has been envious of? Moreover, why has there been no rise of the populist radical right in countries such as Greece or Spain, which both receive(d) a large influx of immigration?

For Balfour, the discussion boils down to the problem of the legitimacy of the decisions made to address the impact of the economic and refugee crises. “Whether it is economic distribution or migration, the thread that runs through these problems and around which politics car-crashed the last decades is who decides and for the benefit of whom?”

The current democratic recession in the EU should be linked to the concentration of the decision-making at the highest levels of power, while the national debates and considerations are largely ignored. Moreover, there has also been a rise of transnational phenomena, such as terrorism and global warming. In addition, Europe also witnessed a huge increase in NGO’s, citizen’s groups, and other stakeholders which also claim their seat at the table when it comes to decision-making.

Therefore, Ms. Balfour suggests that to safeguard the future of democracy in the European Union, there has to be a more inclusive debate, where both national and supranational actors get their say, while the binary choices between more or less Union and federalism versus intergovernmentalism must be bypassed, as there are many sides in-between those two extremes. As such, the centre needs to reform, with a focus on increasing democratisation.

‘The European Union leaves no room for debate’

For Györgi Schöpflin, who as of 2004 represents Orban’s Fidesz party in the European Parliament after a long academic career in the UK, the fundamental problem in the European Union lies with its opposition to each and every criticism. For him, Europe considers its liberal democracy as the sole form of good government, blatantly refusing each abstention from the norm.

Therefore, Schöpflin suggests a radical reappraisal of democracy. “Liberal democracy is in my opinion not the only form of democracy, nor the final form of democracy. Moreover, liberalism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for democracy.” According to him, the consent of the governed should be front and centre and that is something which is rarely discussed in the European institutions.

Hence, the EU is running out of legitimacy. Moreover, it increasingly starts to behave like an empire, with a contraction of perspectives and a corporate elite controlling the information, leaving no wriggle room for debate.

Furthermore, Schöpflin underlies that various features of the so-called ‘liberal democracy’ are actually undemocratic. As such, he points out the juristocracy, where judges are appointed and hence unelected and unaccountable. Schöpflin does not argue to do away with the checks and balances principle, but he questions the extent to which the judiciary should decide on legislation.

Populism offers a viable alternative to this elite-led liberal democracy, since it operates within the democratic system and vows to give the power back to the voters. Since the liberal elite does not like its power to be challenged, they try to delegitimise it. For Balfour, however, the main problem with this Hungarian interpretation of populism lies with the fact that it does not account for pluralism and as such does not accept different viewpoints within ‘the people’.

Pivotal European elections

These two clashing views of the future of Europe are at stake in the upcoming 2019 European elections, which can be seen as a litmus test as to what direction the EU will take. Will it evolve into a more coherent Union or will the European project slowly crumble down?

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