DEMOCRACY WATCHCan the Democracy Europe Has Cultivated Endure?

By Gianna-Carina Grün

Published 24 November 2023

The modern concept of democracy originated in Europe and, from ancient Athens to 21st-century Brussels, governments have sought to ensure that elections are free and secret, state power is shared, and fundamental rights are guaranteed. But the continent is not immune to the anti-democratic developments across the world.

The modern concept of democracy originated in Europe and, from ancient Athens to 21st-century Brussels, governments have sought to ensure that elections are free and secret, state power is shared, and fundamental rights are guaranteed. The stability of democratic institutions in many European countries attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year who have fled war and persecution in their homelands.

About 5.7 billion people, or 72% of the world’s population, currently live in electoral autocracies or closed autocracies, according to the Democracy Report by the V-Dem Institute at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg. In electoral autocracies, there are official elections, but they are not free; in closed autocracies, individuals or blocs exercise power unchecked.

Only 13% of the world’s population lives in one of the liberal democracies. Most countries that are considered liberal democracies are in Europe. In a liberal democracy, civil liberties are constitutionally protected and independent courts and a strong rule of law balance the executive power of the government.

And, although the democracies in Europe are some of the strongest on the Liberal Democracy Index, observers worry about recent developments on the continent. “Some of the most dramatic reversals — what we call autocratization — we’ve seen in Europe, too,” said Martin Lundstedt, political scientist and co-author of the VDem democracy report. “Most notably in Poland and HungaryGreece is another recent and concerning case, although the drop in democratic quality hasn’t been as dramatic there yet.” 

Maria Skóra is a sociologist and economist with the Institute for European Politics in Berlin, where she researches the resiliency of rule of law in EU countries. “With Poland and Hungary, we see two EU member states proactively dismantling the rule of law,” Skóra said. “It’s not just about democracy in these countries, but also about the reliability of their public institutions, their administrations — but also compatibility with EU law. A robust democracy ensures that the rule of law functions well. When the rule of law breaks down, other parts of democratic systems break down, as well.” 

Although they say the developments in Poland and Hungary are the most concerning, Lundstedt and Skóra also see anti-democratic tendencies in almost all other countries in Europe. That’s because nationalist and right-wing-populist parties are seeing electoral success and moving increasingly into the political mainstream