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. Repoliticization 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.

Some prominent European Union (EU) discourses on democracy have limitations that can get in the way of a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of EU democratic change. These limitations may produce blind spots in the way that the European Commission sees European democracy, or they may be a product of “seeing like a state”. This contribution offers a brief sketch of a more comprehensive – and, perhaps, a more practical – framework for thinking about democratic change in the EU.

Photograph of Michael Saward
Michael Saward

Characteristics of the EU’s democracy discourse

Recent key commission documents are revealing about how the EU sees the problems and challenges of democracy, and about its blind spots in addressing them.

First, there is often an emphasis on protecting democracy in the EU. This can imply that EU democracy is largely achieved and that the main problems come from pernicious external challenges. There is also much on how existing democratic governance structures may be improved, but the protection and improvement elements are not effectively conjoined.

In commission documents, there is little consistency in defining democracy for the EU context, leaving open the question of exactly what is to be protected. For example, the communication on the European Democracy Action Plan states that “democracy is about the richness of participatory practices, civic engagement and respect for democratic standards and the rule of law, applied throughout the electoral cycle”. Elsewhere, as in the report of the Conference on the Future of Europe, there is an emphasis on deliberative practices as the core of democratic richness.

Second, the commission’s expressions of what should be done for, with, or to democracy in the EU are commonly couched in highly metaphorical and indistinct language. Terms such as nurture, protect, defend, bolster, resilience, election integrity, empowering citizens, vibrant civil society, active participation, mainstreaming, and disinformation are routinely deployed. These are redolent of management speak – catch-all terms that are open to widely different interpretations, often used for general effect rather than to convey specific proposals.

This approach is also reflected in the use of positional metaphors and the passive voice. For example, the commission’s report “The Future of Government 2030+” speaks of “shaping policies that affect [citizens’] lives”, “putting citizens at the heart of European democracy”, and “[bringing] citizens to the centre of the scene”, and says that “new forms of democracy, governance and public value generation need to be considered”. There is a lack of clarity as such indistinct, catch-all terms can be interpreted in multiple ways. This may be deliberate for political reasons: vagueness can be strategically helpful because it can help keep very different political groups on board, since they can read their preferred meanings into the terms. But the downside is that it is not fully clear what different political actors have signed up for when specific plans must be devised to achieve these goals and values.

Third, just how broadly the idea and practice of democracy in (or for) the EU should be understood is a source of tension in recent EU statements. Specifically, it is not clear how far wider social conditions and policies should be considered a core component of EU democracy. For example, the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies in the European Commission advocates a “thick” conception of democracy that includes “justice, equality and solidarity” in which “the majority principle serves to realise and protect other substantive values”.

Fourth, the commission lists multiple principles of democracy but pays little attention to how they might be related conceptually or institutionally – which is primary, which secondary. For example, the EU communication on the European Democracy Action Plan states that “the Commission is proposing a response centred around individual rights and freedoms, transparency and accountability”. Elsewhere in this document, principles of freedom of elections and the media, independence of the media, free and fair elections, social equality, and participation are listed. However, principles associated with democracy are not necessarily all compatible with each other. The components or implications of some principles may dilute or modify in practice those of others. A simple listing of democratic principles can only be a first step that then requires a more discriminating analysis of such tensions and an ordering of priorities.

Fifth, often the commission moves quickly from general principles to very specific forms and techniques without intervening reasoning to back up the move. There has at times been a specific focus on deliberative democracy, the most prominent element of democratic institutional reform in recent decades (in democratic thinking and, increasingly, also in practice). For example, the Conference on the Future of Europe featured European citizens’ panels at the core of its work. In “The Future of Government 2030+”, citizen engagement and involvement seems to come down to deliberative devices: “there are many ways to engage citizens in dialogues, e.g., science cafes, focus groups, deliberative polls, citizen juries, scenario workshops, consensus conferences”. Such deliberative devices can be useful, but they are limited in democratic terms: they are often selective and small participative opportunities that involve very few citizens directly, and often with low profiles and under the control of facilitators. Such a focus on citizen dialogue does not translate straightforwardly to citizen empowerment.

Finally, when commission documents discuss EU or European democracy, it is not always clear which political unit or community is being referenced. Often, “EU democracy” is used to refer only to democratic principles and practices at the level of EU governance; yet, it should also incorporate such principles and practices at the level of the member states, as suggested in the introduction to this collection.

The narrow focus on areas of strict EU competence can help coordinate but ultimately has limited impact on democratic or governance practice in member states. Relatedly, the over-general use of the term “member states” implicitly reduces all of them to a common type, setting aside the historical, institutional, demographic, and other differences that strongly affect the way democracy may be understood or practised from one state to another. The broader understanding of “EU democracy” is essential.

Systemic and design conceptions of democracy

Several factors are likely behind these blind spots. Not least is the fact that the commission is constrained by multiple pressures and limits of jurisdictional competence and therefore not easily able or disposed to take a comprehensive view of democracy. Yet arguably, such a view is sorely needed in EU official debates.

Repairing these blind spots requires better democratic design. Different elements of democracy should not be separated from each other. Thus, for example, the impact of new digital technologies cannot be taken in isolation. Democratic governance consists of a complex web or network of technologies and techniques: old, new, and envisioned. Electoral systems, deliberative forums, and regulatory bodies with their material and discursive parts are also technologies. Government involves techniques such as observation, regulation, and examination. New digital technologies need to be seen as woven into wider technologies and techniques of democracy, and their misuse examined in that context.

It should not be assumed that democracy has a fixed meaning. Talk of safeguarding and protecting implies that a static democracy is the thing to be safeguarded or protected. But democracy, in all its forms, claims, practices, and structures, changes and evolves. It is always unfinished business. Therefore, safeguarding or protecting it may involve a moving, dynamic thing. Perhaps democracy must become something it has not yet been, and thus its process of becoming is what must be safeguarded.

Equally, democracy’s principles or values cannot be separated from its practices and procedures. Values such as equality, freedom, rights, participation, and accountability mean little unless they are specifically enacted through democratic practices or institutions. The philosophical tradition of separating abstract normative ideals like equality from the machinery of government has not contributed much to the hard work of democratic design; too often, it assumes that the only thing that matters is policy, and not the polity (or the democratic process) that is able to produce it.

Protecting democracy should extend to protecting, or enabling, its wider societal preconditions. These include functioning and equitable systems of health care, education, and housing for old and new citizens. Democracy is a wider social system within which a political system operates, not just the political system more narrowly conceived.

Taking a comprehensive view can make life more complex for democracy’s defenders or reformers. Yet, a systemic design perspective on democracy helps to get a grip on the complex systems of democratic practices, institutions, and values.

The concept and practice of design in thinking about EU democracy features in some parts of commission thinking. “The Future of Government 2030+”, for example, notes that “integrated design approaches … improve the work of governments and public sectors … The development of a highly participative culture with the inclusion of citizens in co-creation and co-design of policies could increase the legitimacy and efficiency of the government and consequently contribute positively to our democratic societies.”

However, design here is firmly rooted in the specific area of policy – it addresses governance outputs (policies), not governance itself. The EU needs a wider view of design in the context of polity, not just policy – that is, the design of democratic governance itself.

Design perspectives on democracy open a critical space for recognising how provisional and reworkable ideas of democracy are, and for generating new and hybrid designs for democracy. Democracy in this frame becomes less of a familiar and given thing and more of a design challenge. It is essential to work on what democratic governance can be, not on what people assume it is or must be. When doing design work, it is critical to ask “What if?” as well as “What is?”.

Design thinking accepts uncertainty. A crucial aspect of this is a shifting or unstable relationship between problem and solution: “In the process of designing, the problem and the solution develop together” or “co-evolve”. A design approach would also stress that there can be no final form of EU democracy. Even when a novel democratic practice is implemented, the environment will continue to change, creating the potential need for further thinking and adaptation. The search for a democratic solution is not a search for “the optimum solution”; it is a creative search for usefulness in light of particular challenges or problems.

Further, a design orientation stresses the need to avoid presuppositions about what democracy is or can be, and recognise the profound importance of designing for specific national or other contexts. Finally, design encourages taking multiple perspectives on democracy’s problems. Where one looks at democratic governance from will qualify what or how much one sees: for example, the politician and the activist, or members of majority and minority cultures.

A design approach would help address the EU’s current blind spots by bringing a big-picture systems perspective on democracy and its challenges. It keeps the whole in mind while attending to the parts, seeing democracy as dynamic and taking multiple forms, and working with the grain of national, local, and other contexts. It requires asking new “What if?” questions, being self-critical when thinking about democracy, and knowing that problems and solutions can at times swap places and morph into one other.

Crucially, a systemic and design approach to democracy is especially germane to the EU as a near-unique supranational political entity. Its manner of being or becoming a democracy will be a continuing process towards a distinctive and hybrid form. A systemic design perspective would be of particular help in moving this process forward.


Michael Saward is professor of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick. His main areas of research and engagement are democratic theory and democratic design, the theory and practice of political representation, theories of citizenship, and the role of performance in politics and governance.  He is the author of The Representative Claim (2010) and Democratic Design (2021), both published by Oxford University Press, and co-editor of Enacting European Citizenship (Cambridge University Press 2013).