It’s not all about populism: grassroots democracy is thriving across Europe

Richard Youngs at The Guardian: “The past decade has been a bruising one for the health of European democracy. The dramatic authoritarian turns in Hungary and Poland have attracted most attention, but nearly all European governments have chipped away at civil liberties, judicial independence and civil society.

With Covid accentuating many of the challenges posed by populism, disinformation and a collapse in public trust, the narrative of democracy labouring in deep crisis is now well established. Yet as the threats have mounted, so have efforts to defend and rethink Europe’s democratic practices.

Most spontaneously, there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of mass protests, even during the pandemic, many in support of democratic values. People have mobilised against corruption or around particular policy issues and then taken on a broader democratic reform agenda. This has been the case in BulgariaRomania and Slovakia, the women’s strike in Poland, the Sardines movement in Italy, the Million Moments movement in the Czech Republic and protests in Malta initially triggered by journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. Climate movements such as Extinction Rebellion are also beginning to marry their ecology demands to concerns with democratic reform. People invented new forms of protest under Covid: for example, Polish citizens protested against new abortion laws and the timing of elections by taking to their cars in procession, honking horns and playing alarms out of their windows, still in full compliance with restrictions on public gatherings.

New civil society initiatives aim at tackling polarisation. One example is a project called Arguments Against Aggression, which tries to equip people with more empathetic communication and debating skills than those typically experienced on social media and has now run in seven EU member states. Meanwhile, Covid has given rise to hundreds of civic mutual aid initiatives, such as En Première Ligne in France whose website puts those who need help directly in touch with local volunteers. Civil society organisations are also working more closely with protest movements. The Corruption Kills group in Romania, for example, evolved from anti-corruption protests and an outpouring of public anger at the deaths of more than 60 people in a nightclub fire. Online initiatives, meanwhile, are reclaiming the positive democratic potential of digital technology, finding new formats to feed citizens’ views into policymaking.

More and more citizens’ assemblies have sprung up…(More)”.