The five-day seminar on “Challenges of democracy in Europe today: Democratic representation, legitimisation, mobilization, public and social inclusion”, was organized in Xanthi, 20-25 August 2014. Following the April seminar on European elections, democracy and discrimination, this August seminar intended to investigate further the challenges of democratic representation, legitimization, public and social inclusion. The working hypothesis of this interactive seminar rests with the idea that the challenges that both the European political integration project and the effective functioning of democratic-parliamentary national institutions face are symptomatic of a deep legitimation crisis expressing citizens’ mistrust and rising discontent with their actual ability to efficiently influence decision-making procedures that affect, or even directly determine, their lives.
The recent European Parliament elections revealed an unprecedented and widespread disillusionment and discontent among European peoples with the on-going project of European political integration. Is it possible to interpret the electoral outcome as a challenge to the European political establishment solely by the rise of centrifugal national forces? Is representative democracy being challenged as a dominant model of democratic construction by the decline in citizens’ trust and participation, the fragmentation of power and the emergence of new actors, such as the internet “citizens”? Such discontent takes, on occasions, pressing and extreme forms of expression while the sovereign debt crisis stimulates instability and insecurity. Established political elites, which have been identified through time with the constitutional role of alternating majorities in national parliaments, are faced with increasing disaffection from electoral audiences. Such disaffection has a direct impact on the European project, as well. Rather than failing on its own terms, the European integration project appears to be accused and condemned for re-enacting at its own supranational level the growing dysfunctionality of national political systems and the disability of the established national political processes to fully apprehend the allegiance of their peoples. The absence of political control over economic and financial policies combined with the perceived lack of democratic legitimacy of such decisions sets in motion processes that are undermining European as well as national solidarity. The transnationalisation of politics poses a complex challenge to democratic institutions that were designed to cater to the needs of nation-states, and the critique of the “democratic deficit” of the European Union grows stronger by the day. While modern democracies are keeping up the facade of formal democratic principles, politics and government are increasingly slipping back into the control of privileged elites, providing a breeding ground for populist movements whose antipathy towards political elites quickly turns into the rejection of the parliamentary system per se. Mistrust of the state and its institutions ranges from “political apathy” to violence.
Political statuses quo founded on post-war prosperity, or on transition to a democratic regime, are seriously challenged. The current economic crisis and the widespread retreat of the welfare state intensify and complicate such political tensions, yet without being able to offer an alternative exhaustive explanation of the depth, as well as intensification, of the challenges that parliamentary democratic institutions face at European, as well as national, level. The financial crisis, involving high-level political decision-making, can itself be perceived as an expression of a wider crisis of the actual model of governance throughout Western Europe. A major issue explored in the seminar is whether such developments are the limit point to a challenge to democracy itself. Alternatively, certain specific features of the democratic set up as experienced it today, tend to undermine actual democratic participation on a basis of equal liberty for all, resulting in resentment and denial?
The present crisis is often perceived and/or described as a representation crisis, which turns into a full- fledged legitimization crisis of the modern state and of its version of democracy as well. A left critique to modern European states stresses the need for active participation of the citizenry, yet in ways that transcend and question the actual power set up of current parliamentarism. It is not clear however whether political representation is to be blamed as a model that democratic polities practice, or as an overall political idea — for example because it is inevitably connected with deception and illicit usurpation of collective power. Yet, it is important that such criticism point to the direction of representation as a source of dysfunctions, opening the space to discuss its aspects and possible alternatives.
Critics point to forms of mobilisation that defy traditional political partisanship and reject parliamentary representation as a refined form of the traditional technique of captivating popular resentment through a deceptive simile of political activity, such as the periodical electoral vote. The Occupy movement, the Plateies/Plazzas European new populism, even Gezi park are cited as pertinent examples, while some also point to similarities with the early Arab spring. The Lisbon Treaty has significantly encompassed some light version of civic participation in its provisions for the European Citizens’ Initiative. Experimental forms of democratic participation at local (regional or municipal) level are practiced or provided for by actual legislation in several European countries. Realisation of the importance of the sovereign political role that is inherent with the body politic, the “many”, even in forms unmediated by traditional political representation is called for. This political functionality of the “multitude” is distinct from the “people” as a constituted body of the republic. Such distinction makes room for a collective political subjectivity that retains the polymorphy of its individual parts and yet reacts politically. Protest mobilisations and their distinctive structural features exemplify this.
Over the past few years, a new actor has entered with growing force into the political arena: the internet has become a stimulating space for democratic innovation, as information technologies are used to improve the direct involvement of people in policy-making through, inter alia, e-petitions, e- deliberation, and monitoring of institutions’ performance. Social networks, blogs, and online media offer citizens access to public life and opportunities for political participation in an unprecedented direct way.
The lectures’ programme started on Thursday 21 August morning with a discussion on Framing the Debate: Electoral democracy and political democracy: The European integration and the dilemma “international organization or demos”, to be followed by a presentation of the significance of The Local (urban and regional: history, culture, politics) at the Folklore & Historical Museum of Xanthi (Filoproodos Union of Xanthi) and the screening of documentary “Art and Politics”.
On Friday 22 August, the morning session focused on Transforming public and political spheres in Greece I: Public goods, multitude politics and the commons, The representation of the non- representational, and the Geopolitical Implications of Eurozone’s Debt Crisis. A travel to Nestos mountains gorge preceded the evening session on Transforming public and political spheres in Europe II: the role of religion and the Challenges for Europe and democracy: The view from Portugal and the UK.