In anticipation of the 2024 European Parliament elections and a change in EU leadership, concerns persist regarding the state of European democracy. Despite promises for renewal, little substantial reform has been achieved since 2019. While some progress has been made in EU legislation, it has had limited impact on national politics. Efforts such as the European Democracy Action Plan and increased funding for civil society aim to address democratic weaknesses. However, the rise of populism and evolving forms of democratic threats pose ongoing challenges. This report highlights overlooked concerns in EU democracy, advocating for a broader and deeper approach to renewal beyond institutional reforms.

As the 2024 European Parliament (EP) elections and change in European Union (EU) leadership loom into view, concerns are once again evident about the state of European democracy. The rickety state of democracy featured strongly in the 2019 electoral campaign, and the incoming senior leadership made many promises to make democratic renewal a policy priority. Yet, four years on, it is difficult to identify deep reform or improvement to the vitality of European democracy.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs

Far-reaching progress has not been made on tackling European democracy’s underlying weaknesses since the last EP elections and changeover in Brussels leadership posts. Many new laws have been agreed at the EU level on issues such as online standards and political advertising, political party financing, media freedom, and the like. But these have made limited inroads to reviving the state of democratic politics.

European commissioners promised to prioritise initiatives more effectively to democratise the EU in their follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe, which concluded in May 2022. A European Democracy Action Plan has served as an umbrella framework for new regulations on political advertising and other online risks. A new Defence of Democracy package focuses (not without controversy) on external funding and interference in democratic elections. European funding has increased for pro-democracy civil society organisations across the continent. And the commission has belatedly begun to turn the conditionality screws on Hungary and Poland, withholding sizeable amounts of funds from both countries in late 2022. Poland’s October 2023 election, which saw the incumbent Law and Justice party lose power, suggests that this pressure may have had some pro-democratic effect.

When the last EP elections took place in 2019, many politicians, journalists, and analysts were strikingly fretful about the risks facing democracy. The predominant perspective among policymakers and writers alike was that adherence to democratic norms had become worryingly brittle and shallow among elites, some insurgent political parties, and parts of the electorate. The general view through the 2010s was that democracy was in deep crisis and swaying uncertainly on the edge of an illiberal-authoritarian precipice.

In some ways, democratic politics have stabilised in the last four years. The change of government in Poland is potentially the most hopeful and significant turn, even if challenges remain to the full restoration of democratic norms there. Democratic systems have generally shown themselves resilient, even through a world-paralysing pandemic. The 2019 EP elections and several subsequent national elections saw a rise in participation rates and better-than-expected resistance against illiberal-populist forces. Most annual democracy indices suggest a slight flattening out of the year-on-year decline in EU democracy scores registered since the early 2010s. According to the Economic Intelligence Unit, 15 EU member states had lower democracy scores at the end of 2022 than in 2012, with only 11 of them now ranked as full democracies, while the scores for Western Europe then improved slightly in 2022 and 2023.

Yet, even if democracy has shown itself resilient in many places, the commitment to democratic quality remains worryingly unfulfilled. European democracy has not imploded, but neither has it reformed deeply enough to address the continent’s underlying political malaise. If some years ago the general outlook on democracy was perhaps overly wrought and alarmist, today it is arguably too dismissive of the need for really ambitious and far-reaching political change. Debates about EU “democratic reform” have become repetitive and formulaic, centred on a constantly repeated and restricted range of institutional fine-tunes of modest resonance to ordinary citizens. The very fact that analysts have been advocating the same reforms for over a decade surely invites a more probing focus on the deeper factors that explain why these fail to advance.

Most alarmingly, of course, the far-right has been gaining support in many places and appears set to gain a significant number of seats in the European Parliament elections. Since the last EP elections, hard-right parties have won power or taken some role in government in Italy, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands and have attracted rising levels of support in Austria, Estonia, and Germany. On a different ideological plane, leftist-populist Robert Fico’s return to power in Slovakia has also raised concerns over democratic governance. Most commentary is now dominated by the prospect of the far-right gaining a significant number of seats in the upcoming European Parliament elections.

The nature and forms of populism are also evolving. Adding complexity to current trends, in some countries an eclectic version of hard-right populism has taken shape that flouts some democratic norms while also appearing to be more embedded in mainstream politics and that often frames its slightly softened anti-EU positions as a quest for recovered democratic self-determination. Yet the increased presence and leverage of these political forces represents a still-unaddressed threat to the very survival of core democratic norms. Sharp debate continues over whether the main menace to democracy in Europe comes from illiberal societal value shifts or from elite strategies of political control. The relationship between democracy and populism has certainly become more varied and contested.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has of course changed the script of European politics. Ukrainian resistance has galvanised rhetorical commitments to democracy’s importance. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen framed her 2022 State of the Union speech almost entirely around democracy. She and other leaders have repeatedly insisted that Russia’s war on Ukraine makes the defence of democracy a more urgent priority and a more central pillar to the whole European project. The imperative of supporting a democratic Ukraine to resist Russia’s invasion has made it harder for EU leaders to continue being so passive in the face of the union’s own democracy problems. Still, the war has led the EU to focus most strongly on external – Russian, Chinese, and other – efforts to distort and disrupt European democratic processes, arguably taking the focus away from the union’s own internal pathologies. The EU has developed resilience in dealing with multiple crises, and yet its crisis decision-making mode risks compounding executive-heavy preponderance over vibrant popular accountability.

Taken all together, the result of these trends is a debate about European democracy that is simultaneously somewhat revived and also increasingly constrained analytically. Concerns now overwhelmingly centre on the far-right’s apparent surge, while many reports home in on a familiar range of reform issues –  the possible structure of alliances in the EP, the lead-candidate system and processes for choosing new EU leaders, the question of transnational political-party lists, the use of EU citizen initiatives, and the like.

Our report contends that equal attention needs also to be paid to the deeper-rooted imbalances and deficiencies that afflict European democracy at the EU, national, and subnational levels. The persistent prominence of a familiar menu of policy recipes impoverishes debates about the future contours and reimagining of European democracy. Institutional reforms of the type routinely advocated in policy and analytical debates may be necessary but often treat the symptoms more than the causes of democratic malaise. The focus on external interference is vital but risks downplaying the far more consequential internal sources of democratic weakness.

This report takes a wider perspective and suggests that these debates leave a number of blind spots unaddressed in EU democracy. It does not offer a comprehensive assessment of every aspect of EU democracy but rather selects a number of pressing concerns most seriously overlooked by current policy and analytical EU debates. These include the need for a wider conception of “democracy” to drive democratic renewal, a more politicised notion of democratic politics, a more permanent notion of citizen participation, and ways to give voice to future generations. The report takes on board ways in which governments are still narrowing civic freedoms while also struggling with more pervasive corruption and a gender backlash as well as trying to reconcile energy transitions with democracy. In the report’s final chapter, experts from other regions offer an outside perspective of what lessons might help make European democracy more equitable, resistant, plural, and participative.

The question of rising support for far-right parties in the forthcoming elections is undoubtedly of immense importance and will continue to attract most media attention, along with the familiar dramas around the selection of the new EU leadership team. But this report argues that deeper, underlying issues need to be considered as the long-term arbiters of democracy’s fortunes. Our concern is with the depth and quality of democracy rather than with the elections turning the EU in any particular ideological direction. If the far-right menace to democracy is to be tackled, these deeper-seated issues need to be addressed – quite apart from how well illiberal populist parties do in the forthcoming elections.

The common thread that runs through the following chapters is this: the EU’s notion of what counts as democratic reform is unduly narrow and excludes some of the really important changes that need to be made to the underlying foundations on which liberal politics rest. Many of these are about national politics and call for a focus on broader European democracy as opposed to narrower, institutional aspects of EU democracy. The term “EU democracy” is taken here to include political processes at the EU, national, and subnational levels; formal and informal actors and actions; and representative, direct, and participative dynamics.

The chapters present a range of different views; the report does not seek to advocate one particular notion of democratic renewal or a single programme of recommendations. The report’s chapters offer a number of key arguments.

Alvaro Oleart argues that EU democratic reforms need to do more to include political contestation and intermediary organisations.

Hans Kundnani stresses that EU democracy will not be revived if the notion of democracy itself is not repoliticised.

Michael Saward points to the way that vital aspects are missing from EU concepts of democracy as expressed in key documents.

Alberto Alemanno highlights the need to accord democratic rights and voice to future generations and proposes concrete ways in which the EU can do this.

Suzanna Carp laments that EU democracy still needs to show itself capable of dealing with the main challenge of the energy transition in a just and participative fashion.

Niccolò Milanese makes the case for a permanent citizens’ assembly and a more political way of conceptualising the notion of democratic participation.

Aarti Narsee argues that stronger approaches are needed against governments’ assault on civic freedoms and rights, and that these are being sidelined by overly sanitised visions of EU reform.

Maia Koytcheva and her Open Government Partnership colleagues insist that broader anti-corruption strategies are needed to prompt wider democratic reforms in member states.

Elene Panchulidze warns that European democracy needs better strategies for dealing with a creeping backlash against gender rights, and that these must go beyond existing women’s empowerment initiatives.

Senem Aydın-Düzgit, Niranjan Sahoo, and Andreas Feldmann suggest that EU democracy must take on board key lessons from outside and learn to import democratic reform.

In sum, our report is not so much a list of specific policy suggestions as a plea for deeper democratic renewal. The whole way of conceptualising Europe’s democracy challenge needs careful re-examination if effective policies are to be crafted in its defence. The report’s authors stress that this involves a rethink at the EU, national, and local levels – and from formal institutional, political, and civil society actors. We resist the tendency here to think in terms of there being discreet policy tweaks that can “rescue democracy”: democracy is struggle and contestation, and always subject to challenge.

European policymakers may not need think-tank analysts to suggest that they should take the defence of democracy more seriously; as debates have evolved in recent years, such a line appears too blunt and unfair to the huge amount of effort now invested in democracy initiatives. The more pertinent questions are now more subtle in nature and revolve around the way in which democratic renewal is defined and understood. This invites policymakers and democratic reformers to take a step back and adopt a wider and deeper analytical prism to understand what blind spots exist in their current policies. Now, as concern turns to the upcoming elections – and issues like the far right’s possible strong showing – it is important to keep these deeper questions in mind. We hope our report contributes to this endeavour.


Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy. Youngs is also a professor of international relations at the University of Warwick. Prior to joining Carnegie in July 2013, he was the director of the European think tank FRIDE. He has held positions in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as an EU Marie Curie fellow. He was a senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC, from 2012 to 2013. Youngs has authored fifteen books. His most recent works are Rebuilding European Democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age (Bloomsbury/Tauris, 2021), The European Union and Global Politics (Macmillan, 2021), Civic Activism Unleashed: New Hope or False Dawn for Democracy? (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Europe’s Eastern Crisis: The Geopolitics of Asymmetry (Cambridge University Press, 2017).