Jonathan Birdwell, Head of the Citizenship Programme at Demos:
Europe has become less politically stable and tolerant
There is a correlation between corruption, organised crime and public distrust
Maria Koleva, Brussels
11 October, 2013
Close-up: Jonathan Birdwell is Head of the Citizenship Programme at the UK's leading cross-party think tank Demos. His research expertise lies in far right populist movements, social action and young people, and civic engagement. Jonathan Birdwell authored the Demos new report on democracy in Europe, named "Backsliders: Measuring Democracy in the EU", launched recently in Brussels. It was published with the support of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament.- Mr Birdwell, you are the author of the newest report on democracy in the EU. What is Demos EU Democracy Index and why it is unique?- The Demos EU Democracy Index is a composite index made up from indicators taken from other democracy indces and surveys, including the World Bank's Governance Indicators, the Cingranelli-Richards (CIRI) Human Rights Index, and the European Values Study. We chose the indicators that we thought were particularly relevant to the EU, in the end constructing an index based on five different dimensions and of 22 indicators. The backsliders index is unique because it applies specifically to EU member states and aims to measure whether countries have slid backwards or become less democratic over a period of years. It is also one of the only democracy indices that applies specifically to the European context. Another such index was actually produced by Demos in 2008, called the Everyday Democracy Index, which we drew heavily on for this project. The first dimension includes the basics of democracy, including rule of law, control of corruption, political stability and electoral turnout. The second dimension includes respect for fundamental rights and freedoms; the third dimension looks at tolerance and treatment of minorities; the fourth dimension looks at the health of civil society and levels of active citizenship; and the fifth dimension includes public attitudes towards democracy and measures of social capital. - In what spheres is Europe mainly backsliding?- On average we found that Europe is getting better or worse and what we saw is that between 2000 and 2011 Europe became less politically stable, it became more corrupt and it became less tolerant towards minorities. The rule of law measure and respect for fundamental rights have remained constant. However, looking at different EU member states we see that some of them have backslide considerably, for example Hungary and Greece and the countries that have frequent and severe declines over time. Our index confirms a common perception that eastern European countries tend to be at the bottom of democracy measures, while western and northern European countries are at the top. - What trends indicated the attitudes of the Europeans towards minority groups?- For this measure we used the European Values Study, which is a survey of the public undertaken approximately every eight years. With respect to tolerance towards minority groups, the respondents of that survey are asked which minority groups they would not like to have as a neighbour. We chose to look at attitudes towards minority groups that we thought are most likely at threat of discrimination - people of different race, Muslims, Jews, Roma, immigrants and homosexuals. What we saw that between 2000 and 2008, even before the recession and the crisis, more people in Europe didn't want to be neighbours of those minority groups and became less tolerant of them. The only exception to that were attitudes towards homosexuals, which become more tolerant on average. The biggest increase of intolerance was seen against Muslims. In terms of more recent data from 2012, the DEREX index (Demand for Right-Wing Extremism) undertaken by think tank Political Capital in Budapest suggests that the countries with the most intolerant attitudes towards minorities are Greece, Cyprus and Hungary.- To what extend the corruption and organised crime raise public distrust? - Our research does suggest that there is a correlation between corruption, organised crime and public distrust. If we look at our index we do see that those countries that scored badly in terms of corruption were also those who had low scores in terms of their attitudes towards the democracy in general. - Are crisis, poverty and unprecedented high unemployment affecting democratic values in the EU?- We didn't actually include the measure of unemployment in our index, but in general high levels of unemployment is never going to be good for society and democracy. We do see that Greece came out very poorly in our index and of course they are suffering from extremely high levels of unemployment. In that situation especially, with the rate of unemployment between the young people, many in Greek society are questioning whether democracy is effective and starting to lose trust in the democratic system as a whole. Many are also looking for scapegoats, and we've seen quite a lot of violence and ill-treatment towards immigrants and other minority groups. Of course, these negative trends are encapsulated in the rise of the far right Golden Dawn Party in Greece (notwithstanding the impact of the recent arrests). In places with high unemployment we need to be very careful in terms of monitoring them and making sure they are not going down the paths that make them less democratic. Similarly we don't have a measure of poverty but clearly there is intuitively a link between the health of democracy and poverty and socioeconomic inequality. - The study conclusions show you that democracy in Europe can no longer be taken for granted. What lessons have to learn the policy makers of it?- The biggest lesson is that we need to monitor the democratic situation and we have to keep an eye on it. The best way to do that is to provide an objective robust index to measure it and that must be done by an independent institution so they have legitimacy. Our index shows that there is not enough data currently available to rigorously and objectively evaluate whether democratic principles are being upheld. The European Commission needs first to understand the true scale of the problems in individual countries before they can start addressing them. It's also very important that this measurement process is undertaken by a recognised and legitimate, independent agency. At the moment, the Agency of Fundamental Rights appears to be the best candidate. Policy makers then need to devise specific tools to ensure that member states continue their pro-democratic course. This could include ways of penalising member states that slide backwards. - What measures at EU level can stop this straying?- At present, on the one hand there are infringement proceedings and on the other hand there is Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union where country member state's voting rights can be suspended in the Council. Obviously the Article 7 approach is very drastic and dramatic and has never been taken before. The problem with the infringement proceeding aspect is that there is too many of them and too often they deal with smaller order issues. Things like environmental or consumer rights are very important but it muddles the message if these issues are dealt with using the same tools that we would use to confront core backsliding transgressions of democratic values. There needs a distinction made between core democratic transgressions which would go through a different process, which may be require higher profile interventions and public pronouncements and more severe penalties. Barroso's call in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg for the Commission to be given new punitive powers to police democratic rights across the European Union is an important development, but it needs to focus on building a measurement index and developing better tools if the EU is going to fulfil its role as a 'democracy watchdog'. The European Commission should also produce an annual report that focuses on the overall development of democracy in the EU, specific issues of backsliding or infringement of fundamental rights and actions taken to redress these issues. Periodic naming and shaming of countries will help to raise the profile of the EU, and especially the Commission's, focus on such issues and will also help to apply public pressure to countries to get their democratic act together.- How can be explained the fact that Europeans withdraw from voting when they feel that democracy is threatened instead of being more active in changing their future?- If we look at other research we see that there has been a decline in the past 10 years of public attitudes towards the ability for politicians and governments to be effective on number of issues. I think it's because with the rise of the globalisation and the internet, we are increasingly in an interconnected world and the ability for national level politicians to deal with some of these issues is drastically reduced and the public has a sense of that. That's why we see a decline of the voter turnout. This doesn't necessarily means that citizens are not engaged. We've also seen a rise of protest around Europe but also in Turkey and other areas, of citizens who don't feel that voting is enough and that think that political class doesn't offer a real choice. They are searching for alternative avenues to have influence and that is what we see at the moment.- Do you think that these citizens' attitudes will result in lower turnout at the European elections in May 2014?- It's difficult to say at this point whether turnout will be higher or lower but I suspect that turnout won't be too dramatically lower. I think the prominence of the questions around the EU, around the Eurozone, around the future of the European Union would actually mean that voter turnout will be relatively healthy in May 2014.