The war in Ukraine – regarded by some as a war of values, a confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism – has put into sharp focus the need for Western democracies to find remedies to their own internal crises.

The war in Ukraine, which is pitting Russian authoritarianism against the democratic world, has made the European public more inclined to rally behind national and supranational democratic institutions. Yet serious work needs to be done to fix structures that are clearly suffering from systemic problems, argued speakers at the “Time to Decide Europe Summit”, a one-day conference co-organised by ERSTE Foundation and the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

The sense of threat loomed large as the panel experts in Vienna debated about what could be done to improve the state of European democracies.

The continent’s democracies have performed better than expected since the war started, claimed Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, director of the Institute Strategie 2050 in Poland (the think tank behind Poland 2050, the political party created by the independent Catholic politician Szymon Holownia).

Pelczynska-Nalecz said the war had presented five major challenges to European democracies, which they so far have managed satisfactorily: the refugee crisis, the blow to welfare systems, undermining the rule of law while reaching for quick solutions, the revival of nationalist feelings, and the narrative challenges posed by the Kremlin, for example portraying Russia as a victim of the West, the West is disunited and failing, and sanctions don’t work and hurt the West more.

Pelczynska-Nalecz said that despite the narrative challenges posed by Russia being very strong, studies appeared to indicate that they have not had as great an influence on the European public as might have been expected. Over the last year, she said referencing various pieces of research, pro-European feelings among citizens have actually strengthened, while pro-Russian sentiments diminished.

Ivan Krastev, permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, highlighted how the idea that the democratic system doesn’t work has become a consensus on both the left and the right. “This probably means we have to change the system rather than keep defending its current form,” Krastev argued.

Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank, brought up the growing popularity of the Great Replacement theory on both sides of the Atlantic, whereby Europeans, who have in the past colonised wide swathes of the globe and even decimated native populations, fear the same thing might happen to them.

Knaus said one of the main reasons behind Viktor Orban’s grip on power in Hungary was his “genius as a storyteller”, including by making the Great Replacement vision real for his voters.

To counter this narrative, it is imperative that democratic elites respond with both arguments and emotions. “People need a story of control, to counter stories of violence such as the Great Replacement,” Knaus argued, going on to give as a potential positive example the manner in which German actors in politics and administration are cooperating on managing migration.

The panel speakers in Vienna tended to coalesce around two directions in which Western democrats need to invest efforts to improve the quality of their democracies: expand the element of deliberative democracy or the use of referenda to give people a sense of truly impacting on politics, as well as engage collective wisdom in the search for policy solutions; and the importance of creating alternative positive visions to those nightmarish ones that the far-right uses to garner support.

These methods also seem to be demanded by the youth, in whose hands after all the fate of democracy lies. “The youth is disenchanted with the political system, with the polarisation that representative democracy has generated,” said Anthony Barnett, a campaigner and co-founder of openDemocracy. “But if the process of decision-making is deliberative and inclusive, they will get engaged.”

Managing the crises
On a more positive note, Pelczynska-Nalecz listed how Europe had managed to deal with the various challenges since the war began.

On the refugee crisis, the expert described the impact “as moderate despite the massive scale”, because European societies in general, including her native Poland, took up the challenge.

While there has been some negative feeling against Ukrainian refugees emerging, Pelczynska-Nalecz noted that it was not yet being reflected in the popularity of far-right political forces. She claimed that such negative feelings were encountered mostly among young women in Poland, who are competing with female Ukrainian refugees over scarce public sector resources. For that reason, it is not being seen in a rise in support for far-right parties, because young Polish women tend to support left-wing political forces.

Likewise, Pelczynska-Nalecz claimed that despite the EU entering a “full-scale economic war with Russia”, the political impact has been moderate so far. The only country where the political costs of the war-derived economic difficulties has been clearly in evidence is Slovakia, where the coalition government has collapsed, a technocratic government appointed in its stead, and the populist former prime minister Roberto Fico stands a good chance of returning to power in the September early election.

Other challenges brought about by the war, the expert continued, were to the rule of law, as policymakers rush to make decisions, for example on military spending, and might be tempted to circumcise democratic processes, whether with “good intentions” or by actually using the war as an excuse to introduce measures that would not be acceptable to society in other contexts.

Another important change was the “revival of the nation state” as a model, now sovereignty is again an important element in public debate. However, Pelczynska-Nalecz argued, “we should not perceive this as a challenge to democracy, but rather take this evolution seriously and think how to reconcile nationalism with the reality of the European Union.”

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