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Is Democracy Under Pressure?

September 16, 2013

Anförande i Aten, Grekland

 

The simple answer to the question of whether or not our systems of governance are under pressure is of course:

 

Yes, they are.

 

We live in a period of profound changes - economic, demographic, technological. Our world is changing perhaps more profoundly than ever before - if we add all these factors together.

 

Overall, these are changes for the better.

 

The last two decades might have been the best decades for mankind in history as we know it.

 

We saw perhaps a billion people lifted out of extreme poverty. Polio has virtually disappeared. People live longer and, on average, better.

 

We are much closer to realising the Millennium Development Goals than many thought possible, and this in spite of the profound economic crisis since 2008.

 

In my view, this is due to the fact that we have more open societies, open governments and open economies today than was the case in the past.

 

And in combination with the possibilities of technology, this has led to a new wave of globalisation that has lifted mankind considerably during these decades.

 

Today, according to Freedom House, 66 per cent of mankind live in societies that are either free or partly free, and only 34 per cent in societies that are not free.

 

Half of those, it should be noted, are in China.

 

And these are figures that have remained rather stable over the last few years.

 

If we look ahead it seems likely that the global economy will double in size by 2030, that a decade from now there will be more people in the middle classes than in poverty in the world, and that we will see a world with a narrowing gap between rich and poor nations.

 

A middle-class world ought to be a world where the basic conditions for democratic governance are better.

 

And we should not forget that we are also entering an age of global hyper-connectivity - within five years approximately 60 per cent of the population of the world will be covered by high-speed mobile networks better than those covering Europe today.

 

I believe we are likely to see more of a convergence of concerns across the world as one of the results of this development.

 

But increasingly we are seeing signs of a growing expectation gap in this emerging middle-class world.

 

It is certainly influenced by the economic difficulties of the last few years, and in some regions, notably the Arab world, profoundly driven also by the demographic development they are in the midst of.

 

Although there is no reason to believe that - unless a major war breaks out - the positive trends of the past few decades will not continue, I think it is likely that expectations will grow faster than the ability of governments to deliver.

 

And this will increasingly put our systems of governance under strain - as we are already seeing.

 

But I do believe that democratic governments will have far better possibilities for handling this strain than authoritarian ones will.

 

To put it in concrete terms: I am much more inclined to expect greater pressure on authoritarian governments to open up and move towards representative government than I am to expect democratic governments to be called into question and start moving in the opposite direction.

 

Or to be even more concrete: I expect India to remain a vibrant democracy in the decades ahead, but I would limit my investment in the survivability of the present political system in China.

 

In modern times there has been a link between the nation state and democracy.

 

The city state of Athens was a long time ago - although it has served as an inspiration for two and a half millennia - and it was within the context of the emerging nation states that democracy established itself in Europe.

 

What we are now trying to do in Europe is to build democracy beyond the nation state and the familiar political scene it represents.

 

The European Union, very much a work in progress, is a truly historic effort at building democratic governance for an increasingly interconnected world.

 

The challenges for Europe in this endeavour are numerous.

 

How do you balance the influence of the nation states, still the key source of democratic legitimacy, with the demands for more popular  democracy?

 

How do you create a true European space for dialogue, dispute and debate - what once happened when much of the population of Athens used to meet at this very spot?

 

How do we get our electorates interested in a system of governance that will always be complex and that will always be a sort of permanent coalition government?

 

There are more questions than answers. It's a work in progress. Rome wasn't built in a day. And of course there are dangers.

 

The greatest danger for Europe undoubtedly lies in the return of the nationalist tensions and conflicts of the past.

 

Just north of Greece we saw a decade in which people tore apart societies and killed each other in the name of nationalist fears and dreams. This is a lesson we must not forget.

 

And there is no denying the tensions we sometimes see as our old nation states are becoming societies that are also home to other cultures and traditions.

 

After a century of ethnic and national homogenisation across Europe - the product of wars and nationalism - we are seeing the beginning of a trend of reversal in this respect.

 

And if we look at the demography of our continent, this is a development that must continue if the expectation gap of economic and demographic developments is not to widen further.

 

There are exceptions, but overall forces playing on xenophobic fears have not been particularly successful in the elections across Europe in the last few years.

 

They are certainly worrying here in Greece, and also in Bulgaria and Hungary.

 

But they did worse than expected in the Netherlands and France. And such fears are hardly even marginal in the German debate prior to their election.

 

I believe that the idea of Europe remains the most powerful antidote to these forces of xenophobia and aggressive  nationalism.

 

But that idea must not be portrayed as a museum piece of the past. It must be a living answer to the mounting governance challenges of today and tomorrow.

 

I was born in a world of two billion people, in a Europe ruined by wars and divided by ideology.

 

We are now in a world of seven billion people, with a Europe whole and free for half a billion people, providing overall the most decent place to live and work in the world today.

 

And we are heading in the middle of this century towards a world of nine billion people - with us Europeans representing only approximately 7 per cent.

 

I do believe this will be a world where democratic governance will have an even greater role than today, and where unfree societies will be even fewer.

 

But much depends on our ability to handle the expectation gap in the new middle-class world - and how we Europeans fare in our great historic effort to build true multi-layered democratic governance for an increasingly  interconnected world.

 

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