The West’s fervour for ‘exporting democracy’ has dimmed somewhat since the Iraq war. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have been painful, and the current focus is on promoting democracy less through ‘shock and awe’ and more through ‘hearts and minds’.
There is also, however, more of a general acceptance that different societies have different values and approaches, and that democracy will not be identical in every context. Even in the heartlands of the “democratic world”, no two systems look the same. Some countries follow a parliamentary model, while others have a strong president. Some countries are republics, while other retain constitutional monarchies.
One of our users, Zeebra, thinks “Switzerland is the MOST democratic country in the world”, largely because citizens can call constitutional or legislative referendums if they gather enough signatures. Is he right? If not, can we definitively say which is the most democratic country in Europe?
To get an answer, we spoke to Nikolay Nikolov, a journalist and media producer who currently works for Mashable and is completing a PhD on “paths to democratisation in Eastern Europe” at University College London.
Which country would he say is the ‘most democratic’ in Europe today?
It’s difficult to grade something from ‘most’ to ‘least’, especially in terms of democracy because it’s a very dynamic process. How can you compare Britain to Bulgaria? Bulgaria has experience of being a democratic country for 25 years, and Britain has played around with the idea for hundreds of years. So, it’s hard to talk about the ‘most’ democratic country.
However, I think what can be said is that a recent barometer of democracy within the EU context has been the refugee crisis, and how countries have responded to that crisis. And I think the most important factor in that is where populism, fear-mongering, and xenophobia have taken hold. Because I think the countries that have responded to this crisis using strategies of racism, fear-mongering, and of ‘we’ versus ‘they’ – I think those countries are less democratic, because the systems aren’t there in place to balance that kind of discourse, and to delimit that way of getting political popularity…
So, I think the way that you judge a country’s democracy in Europe, as of right now, is whether they are able to debate challenges in a constructive way, and to think of political solutions to unforeseen crises like the refugee crisis.
We had a comment from Andreas, who believes that referendums are the “ultimate form of direct democracy”. Could those European countries that hold more referendums (such as Switzerland), be more democratic?
I would say that it’s somewhat dangerous to think that referendums are an answer to ‘politics as usual’, or that they are a platform for people to voice their concerns directly. We can see, for example, in the Brexit vote how much referendums can be influenced using forms of mass media that are not informative but are used purely to manipulate public opinion.
And we have seen, in the post-Brexit deliberations and discourse, that some of people who led the Leave campaign have started to fall back on some of the main campaign messages made during the referendum.
So, I would tell Andreas that referendums should not be considered a democratic technique, especially in this day and age where people assume that we can use the internet to quickly and individually empower ourselves by finding all the information online. I think it’s a dangerous tool to make decisions of political importance.
Which is the most democratic country in Europe? Is it impossible to compare democracy in different European countries, given the context and history is so different in each case? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Jooliargh
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