Democracy in Europe

Democracy as we know it today in essence is a representative democracy. Through the intermediary of elections and with the help of political parties, citizens of national states are able to decide who will rule over them. Today, the smooth running of this form of democratic rule is often seen to be challenged. Numerous changes in European politics and European society have brought pressure to bear on the democratic dialogue between citizens and the world of politics. The EDGE research programme (Evaluating Democratic Governance in Europe) examines these developments and the pertaining quest for new forms and meanings of political decision-making and participation in European democracy. The programme is run in close collaboration between the Political Science Department and the Institute for European Studies (IES). The promoters are Kris Deschouwer and Sebastian Oberthür.

European society has changed profoundly in recent decades. Old antagonisms and divisions on which political parties were built have lost ground and new and often more transient divisions are taking their place on the agenda. There is increasing distrust of political parties, even though they are the pivotal organisations around which representative democracy revolves. The European Union has slowly but surely evolved to become a major source of governance, but by the same token it is also a convoluted construct which sometimes obfuscates the way in which policy is in touch with the wishes and desires of citizens. National and international politics are seen to interact and overlap. In many countries, regions have also been given a number of important powers. On the one hand this is creating more channels for citizens to participate, whilst it is also becoming increasingly more difficult to identify and distinguish between all these different channels. Euro-sceptic and populist parties are calling the current system into question and decrying the fact that elected politicians are not perceived to be proper representatives. In various quarters people are also seeking out new forms of participation and debate such as popular assemblies and deliberative juries.

The EDGE research programme examines these developments in the ways political decision-making and democratic dialogue work and operate. The programme encompasses projects that examine the personalisation of politics, the extent to which candidates and those elected into office sooner tend to play to individual strengths rather than party identities. Research is also being performed into motivations for voting behaviour, the rise and success of new political parties, political participation and representation of specific groups such as gender and ethnic minorities. In addition, projects are up and running on the functioning of political decision-making in the European Union, on delegation and accountability processes between European institutions and between European institutions and national states. And research is also conducted into the position of new media in the communication between the citizen and the world of politics.

The one thing that binds all of these projects together is the attention they bring to the way democracy operates. Democracy came in to being and was given shape in a context that is different from we are seeing today. The tensions sparked as a result and the alternative models and practices that are being established are at the heart of the EDGE research programme. 

Contact Details:
Prof. Kris Deschouwer
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, The Department of Political Science
+32 (0)2 6148120

Prof. Sebastian Oberthür
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Institute for European Studies

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