The discourse surrounding democracy in Europe has often been muddled, with a tendency to view it through the lens of US politics and to conflate the crisis with the rise of populism. However, this overlooks the nuanced relationship between populism and democracy, as well as the significant threat posed by technocracy, particularly within the European Union (EU). Moreover, the discussion fails to address the inherent tensions between liberalism and democracy, resulting in a depoliticized model that undermines democratic principles. Repoliticisation is crucial, especially in economic policymaking, but it also presents challenges to EU cohesion. Balancing democracy and cohesion is essential for the future of the EU.

During the last decade or so, there has been much discussion about democracy in Europe in the wider context of fears about a global “democratic recession” or a “rollback” of democracy. But the way this has been framed has confused rather than clarified. There has been a tendency towards denial and, in particular, to think that democracy in continental Europe is in better shape while the UK and the US are experiencing an acute crisis. There has also been a tendency to see democracy in Europe through the prism of US politics and focus on the threat from populism, which has led to a misunderstanding of the specificity of the crisis in Europe.

Photograph of Hans Kundnani
Hans Kundnani

The widespread tendency in Europe to conflate the crisis of democracy and the rise of populism, or to reduce the former to the latter, is problematic for two reasons. First, it ignores the ambivalence of populism in relation to democracy. As Cristóbal Kaltwasser has shown, populism should be understood not merely as a threat but also as a potential corrective. Second, the focus on populism ignores other threats to democracy – especially technocracy, which is a particular threat in the European Union (EU) and to which populism can be understood as a response. In fact, since the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been perceived as having discredited populism, there has been a tendency to double down on technocracy in the EU.

More broadly, the way in which the crisis of democracy in Europe has been discussed has obscured the complexities of the idea of liberal democracy. If liberalism is understood as a system of individual rights guaranteed by a constitution and democracy as popular sovereignty embodied in fair and free elections, there is a tension between them. In a liberal democracy, liberalism constrains democracy. This can be a good thing because it prevents what is sometimes called the “tyranny of majority”. But it can also go too far, which few centrists or liberals in Europe seem to recognise. This liberal overreach – or, to put it differently, depoliticisation – is at the heart of the crisis of democracy in Europe.

The failure to distinguish between liberalism and democracy and to understand the tensions between them, and instead to simply treat them as if they mean the same thing, has led to a blind spot in debates about democracy in the EU. For example, the focus on how well populists might perform in the 2024 European Parliament elections has obscured what is a crisis of the EU’s model of depoliticised governance. Centrist-liberal politicians in the EU generally see protecting European democracy as a matter of finding consensus about European integration and taking polarisation out of politics. Yet, this is exactly the opposite of what is needed.

Polarisation is clearly a problem in the US, where it has gone so far that the independent institutions that guarantee the constitutional or liberal pillar of liberal democracy no longer function properly. In Europe, the problem is not polarisation but convergence, with independent institutions that are too powerful. In particular, they are too powerful in determining economic policy, which has in effect been placed beyond democratic contestation. Thus, what is required is repoliticisation, especially of economic policy. However, although this could help renew democracy, it also raises difficult questions about the EU.


Depoliticisation as a solution and a problem

From its beginnings in the 1950s, European integration was about depoliticisation – specifically, of economic policy. One might say that this was the genius of European integration – in particular because it made war between France and Germany “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible”, as Robert Schuman famously put it in 1950. But its effect was also to limit democracy understood as popular sovereignty. Though it is rarely put this way, at least by its supporters, European integration took policy out of the space of democratic contestation and created rules to govern it, which could then be challenged only in the courts. Put simply, law replaced politics.

This strategy of depoliticisation through European integration took place in a wider context in which, as Jan-Werner Müller has shown, European states sought not so much to restore democracy after the Second World War but to create a new form of democracy that was highly constrained by unelected institutions, such as constitutional courts. This new mode of governance was based on a deep distrust of the people. “The constitutionalist ethos that came with such democracies was positively hostile to ideals of unlimited popular sovereignty,” Müller wrote. For obvious reasons, this distrust was greatest in West Germany, which thus went furthest in constraining popular sovereignty and creating a liberal democracy that was skewed towards liberalism.

Michael Wilkinson has argued that even in the early period of the European project, the EU tended towards “authoritarian liberalism”. Whether or not one agrees with this, what is clear is that as European integration went further, particularly with the creation of the single market in the 1980s and the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the problems with the EU’s depoliticised mode of governance became more apparent and there was an increasing popular backlash against the constrained form of democracy it represented. This brought to an end the permissive consensus that had allowed elites to push ahead with integration without interference from citizens.

The further depoliticisation that took place in the EU after the end of the Cold War can be thought of as an extreme version of a general trend in the context of hyper-globalisation. As the system of global economic rules was expanded, in particular with the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995, the economic policy space for states shrank. For democratic ones, that meant further constraints on the ability of their citizens to determine economic policy. Thus, as Dani Rodrik has argued, hyper-globalisation undermined democracy. The EU went further than the rest of the world in removing internal barriers to the movement of capital, goods, and people.

In those years, when the process of depoliticisation through European integration went further, the spectre of war between France and Germany had become much more remote than in the immediate post-1945 period – not least because of the success of European integration – and European societies had become less deferential. Together, these developments produced the backlash that would be labelled “populism”. While much of this backlash was directed against specific policies, the structure of the EU transformed opposition to policies into opposition to the union itself. In other words, the EU generated Euroscepticism.

Because of the widespread tendency to reduce the democratic crisis to the rise of populism, the debate about populism in Europe has been framed as a straightforward battle between supporters and opponents of democracy. But a more helpful way to think of it is as a struggle over the balance between liberalism and democracy – that is, between those who want to maintain or create more rules that remove policy from the space of democratic contestation and those who think this has gone too far and want to reverse it. In the EU more than anywhere else in the world, the balance between liberalism and democracy has shifted even more to liberalism at the expense of democracy.

Neoliberalism and the depoliticisation of economic policy

A further way in which the democratic crisis in Europe has been misunderstood is the neglect of the role of economic policy in it. Because the crisis has been conflated with the rise of populism, economic policy has hardly figured in the debate, except in terms of economic factors as drivers of populism. Many commentators also concluded that although economic issues played a significant role in the election of former US President Donald Trump and the decision of the British people in 2016 to leave the EU, they were less significant in the rise of populism in continental Europe.

This has to do with how neoliberalism is associated with the UK and the US. In continental Europe, it is widely believed that the EU stands for a more moderate form of capitalism – the social market economy – than the Anglo-American one. In particular, it is believed there is less economic inequality in continental Europe than in the UK and the US. But continental Europe also has regions and even countries that have been left behind. And even in prosperous parts of the EU, economic factors can play a role – either because people fear for their prosperity or because they do not want to share their wealth. For example, the Alternative for Germany party was initially created in 2013 to oppose a more redistributive EU.

Even more importantly, it is a mistake to think of neoliberalism simply in terms of Anglo-American financialisation or even of the growth of economic inequality. It is necessary to distinguish between different schools of neoliberalism. Particularly relevant to the EU is the Geneva school, which focused on the creation of a transnational economic constitution. As Quinn Slobodian has shown, it sought to “encase” economic policy to protect it from democratic interference. In other words, neoliberalism – or, at least, its Geneva school – is closely connected to depoliticisation.

Thus, the EU has its own neoliberalism that is relevant to its specific democratic crisis. The depoliticisation of economic policy on which European integration has focused since the beginning is particularly problematic, because more than other areas of policy, it has distributional consequences. Economic policy ought to be at the centre of democratic contestation. Moreover, its removal – captured in the idea that there is no alternative – shifts democratic contestation to cultural policy issues. Thus, the depoliticisation of economic policy produces what is sometimes called identity politics or the culture wars.

In the last few years, there has been much discussion of an economic paradigm shift on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, the administration of US President Joe Biden has taken steps to move beyond neoliberalism, based on the idea that doing so will help strengthen democracy in the US, or at least reduce the appeal of populism. This democratic element is entirely missing from the economic steps the EU has taken in response, which are largely aimed at protecting European companies from unfair competition. In other words, while the Biden administration aspires to revive“save democracy through industrial policy”, as one person close to it put it, the EU does not seem to be trying.

The necessity and dangers of repoliticisation

The rise of populism in the EU, and especially the battles Brussels has fought with Hungary and Poland over the rule of law, has drawn attention away from the problems with the EU itself from a democratic perspective. Chris Bickerton has argued that there was a moment in the 1990s and 2000s when European elites were aware of the gap between them and citizens and sought – unsuccessfully – to close it. He wrote that since then, “the debate about the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ has been recast as a struggle between EU democracy and the illiberalism of [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban and the Law and Justice Party (PIS) in Poland”.

The exclusive and obsessive focus on the threats to democracy from illiberalism or populism in Hungary and Poland has drawn attention away from the inherent democratic problems of the EU, to which the rise of populism and “illiberal democracy” are, at least to some extent, a response, as some leading scholars of populism like Cas Mudde recognise. European centrist-liberals should therefore be more self-critical – and more creative and open minded. The EU has launched countless democracy initiatives, but these tend to instrumentalise democratic participation as a means of legitimising the EU rather than encouraging open-ended pluralism.

Instead, a more political EU is needed to renew European democracy. There has long been talk about a more political European Commission, suggesting at least some implicit recognition that depoliticisation is a problem. But little has been done to create something more like the kind of democratic politics that exists in states – one in which there is a government and an opposition that argue about distribution and rotate in and out of power instead of governing together in the kind of permanent grand coalition that exists in Brussels, without any opposition except the Eurosceptics whom they seek to exclude.

A particular challenge is how to repoliticise economic policymaking. Here, it is necessary to distinguish between fiscal and monetary policy, which function in different ways and have been depoliticised to different degrees. Fiscal policy, still in principle directed by elected governments, is theoretically more politically responsive than monetary policy delegated to an independent central bank. One first step towards repoliticising fiscal policy would be to abolish the EU’s fiscal rules, which have been suspended since the pandemic. However, it seems more likely that the EU will adopt a reformed version of them.

Monetary policy is trickier. Here, the central actor is the European Central Bank, which is even more insulated from democratic control than fiscal policy actors are. Along with constitutional courts, independent central banks have played a key role in the expansion of technocratic modes of governance, especially in Germany. The tragedy for the EU is not only that the European Central Bank was created following the German model but also that it is more independent than the Bundesbank, the German central bank. It could be made more responsive, but there would likely be resistance to this from Germany.

Finally, although it is necessary to make the EU more democratic, repoliticisation could also be a danger to it. In particular, a more political EU in which there is more open political contestation over distribution risks further intensifying conflicts between creditor countries and debtor countries, which could tear the EU apart. In short, there is a fundamental tension between democracy and cohesion in the EU, which makes it very difficult to make the union more democratic without endangering it. In this context, the biggest threat to democracy in the EU may be the belief that the European project must be protected at all costs.


Hans Kundnani is an associate fellow in the Europe programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London. Before joining Chatham House as a senior research fellow in 2018, he was a senior Transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. In 2016 he was a Bosch Public Policy Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, D.C. He is also an associate fellow at the Institute for German Studies at Birmingham University. Hans is the author of Utopia or Auschwitz. Germany’s 1968 Generation and the Holocaust (London/New York: Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2009) and The Paradox of German Power (London/New York: Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2014), which has been translated into German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. He studied German and philosophy at Oxford University and journalism at Columbia University in New York, where he was a Fulbright Scholar. He tweets @hanskundnani.