We’ve had 10 years of a decline of democracy around the world. It doesn’t mean the sky is falling in and it’s not to say that everywhere is going to become an authoritarian dictatorship. But we have lost a lot of ground that we made up during the 1990s after the Cold War ended.
I think what’s happening in a lot of places is what some people call ‘illiberal democracy’. I don’t like that term because I think it’s an oxymoron. If it’s illiberal it’s not democracy and that’s why I use the term ‘counterfeit democracy’ instead. The difference between the two is that illiberal democracies still use the word ‘democracy’. But if people don’t have a meaningful say in their own government, then it’s not a democracy. There also has to be democracy in-between elections. That means that there has to be rule of law, and there has to be input from the people.
All of these things are being swept under the rug increasingly across Western Europe and potentially in the US (we’ll have to see with the Trump presidency, although we’ve seen a lot of warning signs). In Europe the danger signs are coming from Hungary with Viktor Orban eagerly rolling back democracy, and, to a certain extent from Poland.
There’s also a loss of faith in democracy itself. Younger generations are less enamoured with democracy, and they view it as more expendable. These types of factors create a perfect storm where people are not going to fight as hard for democracy. That’s a problem because democratic institutions are really only as powerful or as sturdy as the people willing to uphold them when they’re under threat.
“The EU was one of the biggest forces for democratisation in world history. It required any applicant to the EU to democratise – Eastern Europe democratised overnight. But there’s nothing to kick them out if they slide back towards authoritarian rule.”
The really interesting thing with the EU is that it was one of the biggest forces for democratisation in world history because it required any member state that was applying to become a member to democratise. And so Eastern Europe democratised overnight. It was remarkable and unprecedented. But the problem is there’s nothing to kick them out if they slide back towards authoritarian rule. The EU needs to think carefully about how to downgrade members if they slide back towards authoritarianism because currently there’s no mechanism to deal with member states that start to become less democratic. And I think there should be, because if the ethos of the EU is that we’re a bloc of democratic nations then there should be consequences for those who deviate from that.
I also think that the model that the EU suggests could be replicated globally. You used to be that you had to have a continuous border to have a trade partnership. But even though the Trans-Pacific Partnership is probably dead, it shows that you can have trade blocks that don’t rely on geography. There are prospective member states who are 10000 miles apart from each other.
So to me, the solution would be to have a trade bloc of democracies. It would have a built-in way of kicking out countries that gravitate away from democracy and it would slowly squeeze the Chinas and Russias of the world economically if they were able to implement it.
It’s unlikely to happen, but it’s something that’s possible. And it would be a huge force for democratisation because the EU showed that it just totally transforms the incentives in these countries. It creates an actual incentive to democratise beyond the fact it’s a good thing. Democratisation is actually good for your wallet too.
Brian Klass is the author of The Despot’s Accomplice: How The West Is Aiding And Abetting The Decline Of Democracy.