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The future of liberal democracy in Europe

European societies are traversed by a multiplicity of identities, attitudes, cultural backgrounds and constitutional traditions. In the face of increasing complexity, certain political forces have promoted a vision of homogeneity, hierarchical control and order. Some extremist and some populist discourses, while not necessarily overlapping, have promoted strict majoritarian and nativist interpretations of democratic governance. Some have been challenging key tenets of liberal democracy like the protection of the rule of law, the separation of powers, women’s and minorities’ rights, etc. altogether or with some variation, providing visions that often conflict with EU priorities. These narratives figure prominently in public discourse and inform public opinion. They influence public views on pluralism and fundamental rights, but also inspire counter discourses and resistance. In addition, populist rhetoric also tends to crystallise in debates about borders and border control, where a tension emerges between the liberal policies of states and the actions called for. Together with the strengthening of the powers of executives, these developments could potentially undermine the stability of democracies. Furthermore, the liberal democratic model is challenged by non-liberal global players, such as China and Russia, and other external factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis. These external challenges paint a poor picture of democracies’ ability to solve collective problems in comparison to other actors, while disconnecting economic and political power from democracy on the global stage. A philosophic, sociological, legal, economic, historical and political reflection is needed on the foundations of liberal democratic governance in order to establish a viable conception of liberal democracy for the future.

Proposals are expected to address some of the following points: To examine the internal (within nation-states) and external challenges to liberal democracy and the discourses, social structures and institutions that underpin them. They should illustrate how such discourses depict social and political subjects as well as the structure of modern societies and institutions. How do these counter basic tenets of liberal democracy? When and why are they successful, or not? Long-term trends in the functioning of key elements of European liberal democracies (fundamental and human rights of individuals – such as freedom of expression, of assembly, of non-discrimination –, the rule of law, pluralism, separation of powers, access to justice, the independence of the judiciary and the media, protection of minorities, right to asylum, etc.) and their public legitimacy should be analysed and compared. Proposals may want to relate these to the impacts of major political and economic challenges of the past decades (e.g. the Great Recession, Cold War, dislocation of empires, “war on terror”, large inflows of mixed migration, the recent pandemic, etc.). The potential tension between liberal, egalitarian and other ideals held by citizens or promoted by political movements can also be examined. Proposals should analyse how institutional and political mechanisms built into European liberal democracies have functioned as limits and as a response to illiberal developments (e.g. checks and balances, enforcement of the rule of law). They should also examine how these mechanisms have evolved in recent years as a response to new threats. Research may provide theoretically rigorous and normatively informed reflections on how political liberalism can be actualised in order to take on the discourses that challenge liberal democracy. Finally, proposals should show the corresponding implications for the institutions of democratic governance.