The future of Europe: strengthen democracy or give way to populism?

Categories: Talks and IdeasPublished On: 2024 June 06

The European Parliament elections on 9th June will be held at a very turbulent time for Europeans. Societies are fractured, and the threat of war, economic tensions, and fear of migrants provide fertile ground for populist promises and nationalist ideas. How will our choices and fears shape Europe’s future? Will we remain a bastion of democracy or will nationalism divide us? And why is it so important for civil society to talk about the future of democracy?

Over the last nine years, we have seen the struggle for democracy by Polish civil society, the defeat of Hungarian civil society, and the rise of one-party rule there. We are following with concern the news in Georgia, where the grip of censorship is beginning to threaten freedom. And every time, when the idea of democracy is trampled upon, the political forces in power usurp the public space and begin to methodically destroy freedom of opinion and expression, trampling on fundamental human freedoms and rights. From the experience of all these countries, we clearly understand that democracy is no longer a given and that we must learn to defend it.

In the run-up to the European Parliament elections, it is important to consider the various scenarios for the future of Europe and assess their impact on democracy and civil society. And, of course, to act. So civil society, think-tank organizations, and policy experts from nine European Union countries – mainly Eastern and Central Europe – are working together to make a difference.

There are four potential scenarios for the future of Europe, and only two of them are favorable to the flourishing of democracy. These democratic scenarios would require that most Europeans vote for candidates from traditional political parties such as conservatives, social democrats, or liberals. In these two cases, Europe would remain on a fundamentally democratic course.

One scenario involves the balance of political forces being largely maintained after the elections. This has been identified by experts as the most favorable for democracy and has been described as a democratic renaissance. In this scenario, Europe is likely to continue focusing on climate change, social justice, and economic reform. If the balance of power shifts and nationalist agendas gain more popular support, we can expect a more growth- and security-oriented future—a conservative scenario of convenience.

The other two scenarios, which are bleak for the future of democracy and human rights, are based on the likelihood of the triumph of populist forces and anti-systemic parties. If these forces were to win half or even a majority of the seats in the European Parliament, it would provoke a long process of disintegration and fragmentation, threatening the European idea from within. This scenario would be most advantageous to Russia and China, as they seek to oppress EU countries and sow anxiety in their societies.

The outcome of these scenarios will depend on the level of participation in the European elections and the choice of candidates. In 2019, statistics revealed that Lithuanian voters were quite active during the European Parliament elections, with a turnout of almost 53% of eligible voters, ranking Lithuania 11th in the EU. The high turnout could be attributed to the concurrent local elections. Five years ago, we made a relatively moderate choice, but what about this year? Will we be swayed to prioritize populist promises and security at the expense of the rule of law and human rights? As we cast our votes on 9 June, let’s bear in mind that the future of Europe also hinges on our decision