The list of current challenges to democracy in Europe is unfortunately a long one, with many of these stemming from the after-effects of the late 2000s financial and economic crisis. Economic distress and austerity have dominated the politics and political life of many EU Member States, leading to growing public anger over issues of inequality, stagnant living standards and social injustice. The high levels of migration to Europe from other regions from 2015 onward added additional ingredients to the slow-cooking pot of economic grievances felt by many European citizens. Issues of fairness, cultural integration and a feeling of dislocation from the national discourse intertwined with pre-existing economic anxieties, thus laying the groundwork for the growth of both left- and right-wing populist movements. And of course, rapid technological change, particularly the growth of social media, has also radically altered democratic participation over the past few years. Citizens are now just as likely to receive their news from Facebook or Twitter (for example) as from traditional print and broadcast media. This has opened the door to high levels of misrepresentation and the spread of ‘fake news’ that undermines informed democratic participation and thus the very foundations of liberal democracy.
COVID-19: The latest ingredient
Then COVID-19 struck, causing untold hardship across the EU as citizens have had to cope with lockdowns, the deaths of loved ones and the worst recession since the 1930s. Whilst EU leaders did agree a comprehensive recovery package in July 2020 as a response to the crisis, the political, social and economic after-effects of the pandemic look to be just as long-lasting as those from the 2008-2009 financial crisis. How Europe recovers from the pandemic and how EU, national and local leaders respond to the unprecedented economic and social distress left in its wake will determine the course of European liberal democracy and European values in the 21st century.
Innovative and evidence-based research: Lighting the way forward
This is where innovative research comes in – policymakers do not act in a vacuum and rely on evidence-based research to make informed decisions. The EU’s Horizon 2020 programme (and its soon-to-be successor, Horizon Europe) actively supports social sciences and humanities researchers who are passionate about understanding the causes and finding solutions to all of the above challenges. The researchers featured in this Pack have demonstrated their passion and drive by applying their research efforts to many diverse issues. These include economic insecurity, cultural and social integration/dislocation, youth issues, how to better understand (and thus respond to) shifts in European public opinion, combatting misinformation and ‘fake news’ and even how the EU defends and promotes its values in the international diplomatic arena. There are no easy solutions to any of the challenges currently facing European democracy. But Europe can rise to the task of defending and enriching its fundamental values and democratic systems and make them work better for all citizens. One such initiative will be the Conference on the Future of Europe, a 2-year project announced by the European Commission that aims to give European citizens a greater say on what the EU does and how it works for them. It will be an opportunity for the EU to display how it can further evolve through constructive engagement with its citizens and to make the democratic system of the EU more vibrant, interactive and relevant for them. 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.