Are Democratic Values at Risk? – HAY Festival Especial

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A couple of weeks ago, Segovia’s streets swell with visitors attending the HAY Festival, an event that gathers diverse perspectives to discuss current issues through literature and art, sparking dialogue on how to make the world a better place. Because most talks were held at IE University, students were bombarded with informative emails encouraging them to attend, so I dragged a friend to a discussion on democratic values featuring terrorism and human rights expert Mark Muller Stuart and Spanish politician and lawyer Álvaro Gil Robles. Honestly, I was not sure what to anticipate at first, but the topic rapidly captured my interest, as seeing two experts concerned about democratic values in Europe made me question if something we have taken for granted for decades may be endangered.

After world war II, western countries came up with a set of rights known as democratic rights that compromise for their countries’ futures. These fundamental principles—respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights—are outlined in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. Respecting people’s rights is one of the EU’s basic obligations, and governments should meet them by applying policies and programs that boost these rights. However, Muller Stuart and Gil Robles brought up how recent developments such as the rise of antidemocratic movements in Europe, the absence of practical consistency, and democratic principles’ interpretative openness have put these values in jeopardy.

Interpretation of democratic values

The first argument brought up was that democratic rights’ interpretative openness has caused people to question their efficiency and the role of democracy itself. Álvaro Gil Robles argued that democratic values are indisputable and come as a package that countries either fully accept or simply do not. This conservative standpoint can lead to controversy since, in practical terms, democratic countries usually have their own interpretation of these rights. A survey conducted in 2019 by the Pew Research Center supports this claim. People from various European nations were asked to rate the significance of the main nine democratic values; the results showed that while having a fair judiciary is important in most countries, there are differences between Eastern and Western Europe in opposition parties and whether civil society can operate freely. According to Mark Muller Stuart, this scenario is typical because, even though there are international procedures in place to guarantee democratic rights, each nation retains its own sovereign authority. Additionally, he contends that the dangerous interpretation does not rely on the meaning of human dignity itself but on how discrepancies in democratic values can lead to security threats.

Absence of practical coherence

Second, the speakers made the case that democratic nations frequently receive criticism for their conduct in the international arena being inconsistent with the promises they make and the principles they uphold. When critiquing Western values, Russia most frequently cites the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) standard as an example of this inconsistency as, in most countries, the intervention, rather than upholding human rights and dignity, has aggravated an already precarious situation. Another point of incongruity brought up is how interventionism changes based on the nation being intervened in and how close it is to democratic principles. For example, the interventions in Sudan and Ukraine were extremely different from one another. This prompts concerns about political interests interfering with the protection of human rights, which leads to a decline in popular acceptance of democratic norms while raising the question of how much is a justifiable price to pay to protect Western nations’ values.

Furthermore, incoherence is not only evidenced externally but also domestically among European nations. The speakers discussed how the Lisbon Treaty’s inconsistencies with the government’s actions have contributed to segregation, rising tensions, and the inability to deal with political change, raising doubts about the EU’s capability to comply and gravely jeopardizing democracy as we know it.

Emerging anti-democratic movements across Europe

Finally, both speakers examined how Europe is being challenged about its identity with the multiple anti-democratic movements that have emerged because of existing institutions’ failure to solve significant societal issues, increased polarization, and expanding disparities. 

Poland and Hungary are two examples of the above. Since both nations’ democratic systems have deteriorated over the past ten years, the ruling parties in Budapest and Warsaw have imitated one another in their efforts to repress the judiciary, independent media, civil society, and vulnerable minority communities. Therefore, they switch from criticizing the liberal values that support democracy to establishing new standards and actively promoting anti-democratic practices.

In conclusion, democratic ideals in Europe are more threatened than ever before, putting the union’s identity on a razor’s edge. As Muller Stuart and Gil Robles noted, it is crucial for countries to confront the various dangers to democratic principles, such as those outlined above, in order to restore public confidence in democracy and protect the foundation upon which the European Union has been established.

Featured cover image: Unsplash

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