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Challenges to democracy in Europe: Insights into a complex and turbulent political climate

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on our democratic societies, posing unprecedented challenges to globalisation, personal freedoms, the reliability of information and, ultimately, the ability of democratic institutions to cope with the rapidly changing societal demands. This adds up to a tumultuous decade for European democracy, that saw the rise of populist movements, anti-European sentiments fuelling disintegration pulsions, and growing grassroots protests over a number of issues, ranging from racism to economic disparity.

Society

This comprehensively updated CORDIS Results Pack, including nine entirely new projects, features some of the innovative EU-funded research that helps us to better understand the major political issues of the day and provide recommendations for policymakers, citizens and other organisations to better respond to the threats facing European democracy. The list of challenges faced by European democracy is a long one. The lingering impact of the 2008 financial crisis, with widespread economic distress and austerity, led to growing public discontent over inequality, stagnant living standards and social injustice. The migration crisis of 2015 following the Syrian civil war, which led to the highest levels of displacement ever recorded, exacerbated discontent among European citizens over issues of fairness and cultural integration. A feeling of dislocation from the national discourse intertwined with pre-existing economic anxieties and fuelled both left- and right-wing populist movements. Rapid technological change, particularly the growth of social media, has radically altered democratic participation over the past few years. Citizens are now just as likely to receive their news from Facebook or Twitter as from traditional print and broadcast media. This has boosted opportunities for citizen engagement on digital platforms and also fostered transparency, but nevertheless contributed to the spread of disinformation and ‘fake news’ that undermine informed debate, and thus the very foundations of liberal democracy.

COVID-19: The latest ingredient

The arrival of COVID-19 in Europe caused unprecedented hardship for citizens, with restrictions on freedom of movement and the right to assemble and demonstrate, as well as the postponement of electoral processes. These profound changes to how we live, work, study, socialise and travel, will have lasting impacts in our society. However, with vaccination programmes underway, a return to normality is in sight. An EU recovery package that promotes the green and digital transitions encourages innovative developments that will reinvigorate European democracy. How EU, national and local leaders respond to the economic and social distress left in the wake of COVID-19 will ultimately determine the course of European liberal democracy in the 21st century.

Lighting the way forward

These challenges have been met with innovative responses to strengthen democracy all over Europe. Take for example the Conference on the Future of Europe. With its multilingual digital platform (launched in April 2021) and the citizens’ panels and plenary meetings that are taking place over several months, the Conference gives European citizens a greater say on what the EU does and how it works for them. It is a unique opportunity for the EU to display how it can further evolve through constructive engagement with its citizens, making European democracy more vibrant, interactive and relevant. Innovative, evidence-based research is vital to respond to the challenges faced by European democracy. Policymakers do not act in a vacuum, but rely on robust data to make informed decisions. The EU’s Horizon 2020 programme (and its successor, Horizon Europe) actively support social sciences and humanities researchers who are passionate about understanding the causes of, and finding solutions to, the aforementioned challenges. The research featured in this Pack covers many diverse issues including economic insecurity, cultural and social integration, European identity, youth issues, radicalisation, technology, misinformation and ‘fake news’, and even how the EU defends and promotes its values in the international diplomatic arena. There are no simple solutions to any of the challenges currently facing European democracy. Yet the EU can and will rise to the task of defending and enriching its fundamental values and democratic systems. The road ahead in a post-pandemic world will not be easy – but the fantastic research highlighted here promises to shine a light towards a better future for all European citizens.

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