Policy Paper

Europe: Is the System Broken?

June 14, 2019
Open European Dialogue
3 min read
The ground is shifting: Europe, and a changing political landscape

For years, the political discourse has been gradually heating up over European affairs. It is not unlikely that after the coming European Parliament elections one-quarter of all members of this crucial institution for the EU’s democratic checks-and-balances mechanism will consist of representatives whose mandate will be to call into question the very existence of the union in its current set-up.1 New challenges lie ahead.

While the economy is still slowly recovering from the last crisis, imbalances persist and there is a rising fear of the next economic downturn—particularly because long overdue reforms to make Europe more resilient have largely stalled since 2009. Political stalemate among member states involved in protracted negotiation and mediation of diverging interests frustrates efforts towards the pursuit of common solutions. The debate on migration and asylum-seekers has become a dominant political item across member states while large numbers of unemployed and precariously employed people wait for economic improvements to reach them too.2 The political reality that is reflected to us by the ballot boxes across Europe raises the question of whether our political system is fit for purpose? Is it the best we can do or is the system broken?

Trust in democracy in Europe is slowly recovering from a plunge after the 2008 crisis.3 Still, according to one study in 2017, an absolute majority of the population in Greece, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, and Italy say that their government never or rarely works in their interest.4 In 2018, a new Italian government was formed by two parties that ran in the elections on clear anti-establishment platforms demanding drastic political change. In France, the protests of the gilets jaunes have become a symbol of fierce discontent toward the government’s fiscal policies and the decline in quality of public services.5

The question is why are groups of voters now losing faith in institutions that they trusted to run their countries throughout the previous decades?

Given the political backdrop, it may be worth exploring the way our “system” is set up and our approach to evaluating it. What are the underlying ethical premises around which our current societal organization is built? What are the different lines of argumentation and political narratives that are driving the debate? And what are their policy implications?

Are claims of the system being broken even justified? Or is the questioning and reversal of political trends once taken for granted the result of a functioning system based on a healthy dose of pluralism and scepticism? How resilient is the system to change, and to what degree does it need to be repaired, rebuilt, or replaced?

Edited by: Chiara Rosselli, Ronith Schalast, Isotta Ricci Bitti, Caspar Kolster

  • 1Politico. (2018). European Elections 2019 – Poll of Polls. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/interactive/european-elections-2019-poll-of-polls/
  • 2European Commission. (2018). Standard Eurobarometer 90. Retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/ Survey/getSurveyDetail/instruments/STANDARD/surveyKy/2215
  • 3Batsaikhan, U. & Darvas, Z. (2017). European spring – Trust in the EU and democracy is recovering. Bruegel, March 24, 2017. Retrieved from: http://bruegel.org/2017/03/european-spring-trust-in-the-eu-and-democracy...
  • 4Alliance of Democracies. (2018). Democracy Perception Index 2018. Retrieved from: http://www.allianceofdemocracies.org/wp-content/ uploads/2018/06/Democracy-Perception-Index-2018-1.pdf
  • 5Spire, A. (2018). The anger of the ‘gilets jaunes’. Le Monde. Retrieved from: https://mondediplo.com/2018/12/the-anger-of-the-gilets-jaunes