Democracy in Danger

Democratic Backsliding and the Future of the EU

By  | 

Every year, the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem Institute) publishes a democracy report detailing the state of democracy in the world. The 2023 V-Dem Democracy Report states that the overall level of democracy in the world today is equivalent to the level of democracy seen in 1986. According to the V-Dem Report from 2023, several European Union (EU) member states are considered electoral democracies rather than liberal democracies. Notably, the report classifies Hungary as an electoral autocracy. This represents a serious disconnect between the proclaimed liberal democratic values espoused by the EU and the actual realities within member states. Called the “other democratic deficit,” today some scholars have argued that authoritarianism is allowed to survive within the larger democratic structure of the European Union (EU) due to democracy at the federal level in the European Parliament and EU financial support. Democratic values and institutions are required to join the EU via the Copenhagen Criteria, but so far, there isn’t a well-established process for dealing with illiberalism and the decline of democracy within the union.

Democratic Backsliding and a European Identity

Democratic backsliding translates to foreign policy and future enlargement processes. One element to consider is the absence of monitoring after states become EU members, identified as a factor in allowing undemocratic movements to grow in Hungary. The EU has certainly made efforts to address this issue in Hungary. In April 2022, the EU moved to impose a conditionality mechanism due to the dismal rule of law situation that would withhold EU funds without Hungarian reforms. So far, and as predicted, the use of the conditionality mechanism has been mixed, especially with it being weakened in exchange for compromises on Ukrainian aid, as reported by Civil Liberties Union for Europe’s annual rule of law report from 2023. The report also recommends that the EU push for stronger enforcement mechanisms, use the European Commission’s annual Rule of Law Report as a method to instigate that enforcement, and apply the same conditionality with Hungary. These suggestions could potentially require institutional changes that would allow the EU to develop new methods of enforcement or make current methods of enforcement like Article 7, which would allow the EU to withhold certain rights from noncompliant states, easier to achieve. If the situation worsened to an untenable degree, then a discussion may need to be had about a mechanism to expel member states from the EU. The other option would be for the EU to abandon its idea of being a normative power committed to liberal democracy. The concept of a normative power is one in which the EU is a unique type of international actor founded upon democratic values that affect how it interacts with the rest of the world. If erosion of democracy within the EU is allowed to continue, the nature and identity of the EU could very well transform entirely. The idea of a future EU without foundations in democracy is difficult to imagine, but with the global decline of democracy, it may become more likely.

Democracy in Danger at the EU Level

Discussions of authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian regimes within the EU often combine with those of European populism and Euroscepticism also relevant in the debate over the supranational democratic deficit and the undemocratic actions and process of the EU itself. Undemocratic national governments can make the argument that the EU itself is undemocratic, so why should national governments aspire to a level of democracy that the EU does not? This “democratic deficit" within EU institutions must also be addressed along with the decline in democracy within national member states.

The much more widely discussed democratic issue with the EU is with the institutions themselves. One of the main reasons for the discontent amongst populist political parties and Eurosceptics is the lack of a public sphere or forum within EU institutions that would allow greater popular participation in EU legislation and discourse. Without a forum for the public to voice their discontent, they may turn to means outside of the EU processes and eventually criticize the existence of the system itself. This again undermines the legitimacy of the EU’s role in the world. Even if you can forget the democratic issues at the national level, there is still a lack of democracy at the level of the EU itself. These very visible issues and discontent seen through the growing trend and discussion over the radical populist political parties gaining traction in Europe throughout the past few years are easy to criticize when the EU is demanding conditionality on democratic issues in relations with other states.

However, this issue is not an easy one to solve. A paradox may exist in which a more democratic European Parliament can help perpetuate authoritarianism at the national level. Democratic initiatives like the European Citizen’s Initiative, resembling the right of national citizens to propose legislation to their national legislative bodies, are difficult due to the rights and structure of EU institutions, specifically regarding the European Commission’s exclusive right to propose legislation. Attempting to allow EU citizens to have more control and agency in EU legislation would likely require some structural changes to how the EU functions. The complex nature of how the EU functions creates unique democratic issues as well as makes solving them more difficult.


What this discussion reveals is that the EU has some serious problems with maintaining the level of democracy that it claims to embody and promote across the world and in its neighborhood. The growing authoritarianism and populism are by no means uniquely European issues with global declines being pervasive. However, the EU aims to support democracy, especially liberal democracy, across the globe. This attitude can often be criticized for being imperialist or Eurocentric, but due to the democratic issues within the EU, it can also be criticized as hypocritical. If the EU truly wants its role as an international actor to be one of democracy promotion, the EU must address its own internal issues to regain legitimacy both in the eyes of the international community but also its own citizens.

About the Author

Bailey Burleson is a master’s student in American University’s Master of International Service: International Studies Track studying United States Foreign Policy towards Europe as well as a master’s student in the University of Warwick’s International Politics and Europe program. Her research interests include democracy, populism, and transatlantic relations.