Viana do Castelo International Forum

We need a Europe able to reverse democratic reflux


We must combine policies capable of responding to the rising empowerment of individuals and, at the same time, of guaranteeing social justice.

The international seminar of Forum Demos took place in Viana do Castelo between May 10th to 12th. The topic addressed by the seminar was “Europe’s place in the future of democracy”. The meeting sought to identify the causes of ‘democratic reflux’ as a challenge to democracy, the forces that oppose it and the way in which the European Union could be a major actor in the defense of democracy and social justice.

Inequality, democratic deficit and identity policies in the democratic regression

The discussions that took place highlighted the fact that, since the beginning of the 1980s, with the increased focus on neoliberalism (policies encouraging the deregulation of markets and the growth of financial capital), income inequality in OECD countries has continued to grow.

In the United States, the wealthiest 10% of the population that had held less than 35% of national income at the end of the 1970s, had increased their share to almost 50% by 2010. The 2008 financial crisis only accentuated this growing income imbalance in OECD countries and, with the collapse of the global financial system, middle- and lower-income classes were the most affected by consequent indebtedness.  The percentage of the middle-class in the overall population has declined in OECD countries, in contradistinction to those countries that, by 2014, had become newly emerging countries, such as China, India and Brazil.

Obvious feelings of dissatisfaction and insecurity have been generated in response to negative changes in working conditions and social protection, including health and old age, with worsening income inequalities in and between countries – with the consequence of democratic degradation in Europe and the wider world.  Inequality in a society based on consumption – as are the vast majority of contemporary societies – is also reflected in a very particular way, in the access to education and culture.  This is happening at a time in human history when individuals have never been so free and have never demanded so openly their desire to embrace their freedom, empowered as they are by education and the information society.

On the other hand, however, political corruption caused by the roles of large financial groups and “market imperatives” has generated the widespread belief that there are no alternatives to neoliberal politics, which, in turn, has discredited social-democratic and right-of-centre political parties. In addition, the normalization of xenophobia and fear of the ‘other’, together with anti-immigrant and Islamophobic campaigns, in particular after the events of September 11, spread by both extreme-right and traditional democratic parties – amplified by both the formal media and social media – have placed issues of identity and migration at the centre of the political debate.

We are living through an extremely serious period of democratic reflux, with political regimes becoming ever more autocratic as the extreme right-wing emerges in positions of influence and power.  The fact that some member-states of the European Union today conduct policies that threaten the rule-of-law indicates that the European Union has been slow or even wanting in its defence of those values that constitute its ethical foundation and that distinguish it from merely being an economic project. The excessive tolerance towards member-states that have become progressively more illiberal has greatly and adversely affected the coherence and the internal and external reputation of the European project.

What to do?

Responding to this democratic deficit and the consequent social unrest requires a set of bold and empowering proposals culminating in the construction of a realizable yet utopian vision.

 Yet they must also be proposals that can be adopted by large segments of the population. We should not be afraid of endorsing proposals that break with the dominant consensus and which, therefore, would be called ‘unrealistic’ by their detractors.   In essence this depends on the fact that the democratic deficit can only be ended once political parties are no longer financed by private sector funding which imposes its own priorities but by a transparent process of co-financing between citizen and state.

We must find ways to encourage that allow for the concrete exercise of the citizens’ will for political participation and overcome the bottlenecks of representative democracy. We need reforms to make democracies more open to participation; for example, through the creation of citizens’ assemblies. They would develop legislative proposals or monitor the activities of elected representatives in order to encourage positive action by the state, enjoying the general support of the population.  Participatory democracy must rectify the needs and blockages of representative democracy; citizens must be at the heart of the decision-making process in order to prevent the monopolistic roles of political parties from asphyxiating democratic life.

We need to promote ‘competent rebelliousness’ so that protest movements are not manipulated by nationalist and antidemocratic forces. We must preserve the purpose of social movements as the essential voice of popular indignation, as a driver of action that believes in change and, in the future, allied to a political maturity that will give direction to strategic thinking that, in turn, promotes democratic and liberating political action. This would generate the potential for the express adoption of ideological and democratic responsibilities that would outline new yet realizable utopias.

We must empower regions, local powers and civil society to display a more open, democratic and inclusive perspective. In this respect, political parties must, instead, act as facilitators of the power of actors in civil society.  They must be autonomous of the state and share a progressive agenda. We should transform the interconnections of globalism to enable progressive forces to lead the world towards greater justice, responsibility, understanding and solidarity. In order to do this, we need ethical codes to govern the evolution of the internet and of communications technologies, and to ensure internet and media companies are promoting meaningful debate and informed understanding, not promoting conspiracy theories, social media addiction and nihilism instead.

Social and democratic Europe as progressive project

A progressive social democratic alternative, able to defeat the objectives of populist extremism requires a realistic vision of what our ultimate ideal goal should be and the European Union is the best vehicle through which this can be achieved in a globalised world where financial power is so strongly concentrated around a few individuals and institutions.  Yet no European state, not even the most powerful, has the capacity, by itself alone, to significantly challenge the regulation of such economic and financial globalization.

However, a democratic Europe, with a clear vision and an ambitious project to fight inequality – notably, through the taxation of private finance and major global companies such as the GAFAs (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple), and the ending of tax havens – would be able to introduce progressive regulation into international finance and into the global market.  The Portuguese example shows that the constraints of the Single Market and of the Maastricht regulatory system are not necessarily incompatible with progressive and anti-austerity policies.

Nevertheless, changes would be needed in European politics for the success of such a progressive agenda. We must reverse the most serious setbacks imposed by the European Union in the context of the economic and financial crisis: especially its intransigent approach to member-state public debt and the fiscal orthodoxy embedded in a Fiscal Compact that severely restricts the political options available to member-states in terms of public investment, particularly for the most seriously indebted countries. The Economic and Monetary Union must adopt the solidarity mechanisms that it currently lacks, reinforce the social protection it grants to citizens and adopt greater harmonization of fiscal policy to avoid fiscal competition between the member-states, while simultaneously reinforcing public investment.

However, the progressive European agenda cannot be restricted to social policies alone, as it also must maintain a clear dimension of human rights and duties of hospitality. Movements for democracy must, necessarily, challenge the discourse of the fear of the ‘other’, whether by encouraging the inclusion of minority groups, or by responding appropriately to those who seek protection or some positive prospects in the future for them and their families. In all cases, we must unconditionally reinstate the legal, moral and historical imperatives of human rights, founded on respect for human dignity, as a legacy of the European construct and the foundations on which it was built. The EU must not only be an example of economic progress but also of human rights and international solidarity.

This convergence of the social agenda with that of human rights must be an integral part of any vision for the survival of civilised life on Earth, hence proposals such as the Green New Deal are propositions that must be actively endorsed by a coalition of social and environmental concerns, which are not in conflict with one another. The 2015 Paris Agreement, proposed as the last chance to effectively address climate change, has, in this respect, to become a key political issue in the national and international arena.

The EU must also be able to assert itself as an unchallengeable exemplar – both in domestic policy and in its projection of itself abroad – of humanist values inside its own structure and those of its member-states. This has become an urgent concern at a time when countries inside and outside the European Union, such as Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, the United States, Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines have been undergoing a dangerous democratic regression in the policies that they have been promoting. The external and security policies of the European Union must, therefore, be based on a progressive agenda.  In foreign affairs, the Union cannot jeopardize its foundational values by tolerating dictatorial regimes and must prioritize relations with the civil societies of the Mediterranean which are faithful to the ideals of the democratic revolutions of 2011 that are now reappearing in the streets of Algeria and Sudan, ideals that had not vanished, despite the brutality of the repression they had faced in Egypt and Syria. Those who struggle against  oppression must enjoy and have confidence in our solidarity.

An alliance between progressive European forces – governments, political parties, civil society, regions and localities – is essential for the reversal of democratic reflux, the defeat of the extreme-right and of nation-based populism and the construction of a democratic, just and hospitable Europe. This is, also, indispensable for a multilateral order, which is more effective because it is inclusive, to survive.  Progressive British forces, too, will be essential for the future of a democratic Europe. The growing political weight of activists in its civil society – in the case of the democratic reversal of Brexit – could have a major effect on the balance of power in Europe.  The construction of such alliances implies a recognition that there is, today, a wide variety of political levels and locations where decisions are made concerning the future of Europe, and that, therefore, must be influenced. No return to purely national or local politics is possible: the political future of any country in Europe is inextricably connected to those of its partners in the European experiment.

The European elections provide an opportunity to defeat nation-based populism

Aware of the risks that European democracies are facing and the implications for the Union itself, the participants at the Viana do Castelo international seminar consider that the European elections in May 2019 provide the perfect opportunity to demonstrate total opposition to national populism and to promote a progressive vision of Europe.  The European Parliament, despite the limits on its powers, is a crucial platform for challenging national populism. The parliamentary elections which will now take place acquire, thereby, a very particular importance. Firstly, they provide an opportunity to resist and reverse the rise of the far right. Secondly, they offer an opportunity for the emergence of a new political coalition in European politics, centred around a Green New Deal, the rights of women and gender equality, an equitable social and economic Europe which promotes the rule-of-law, accountability and democracy, and encourages inclusion and solidarity.

It will be a vision of a Europe embracing its citizens, encouraging their intervention in public affairs and guaranteeing social justice. Thus, in place of a Europe of fear and insecurity, of the rejection of the ‘other’ and the revival of the hatreds of the past, all polluted by a sea of dishonest and distorted information, we offer a Europe based on democratic citizenship, of truth and an affirmation of a proud embrace of freedom and tolerance, founded in a sustainable and welcoming social model of solidarity.  That will be our legacy for the European future.

Has participated in this Forum:

Álvaro de Vasconcelos;

Ana Rodrigues;

António Ferrari;

Claraluz Lannes Keiser;

Francisco Seixas da Costa;

Gonçalo Marcelo;

Hilary Wainwright;

Jéssica Moreira;

José Vítor Malheiros;

Leonardo Costa;

Luís Braga da Cruz;

Luis Peral;

Marcela Uchoa;

Maria José Oliveira;

Niccolò Milanese;

Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos;

Pedro Lourenço;

Renato Janine Ribeiro;

Salam Kawakibi;

Sofia Pinto Oliveira;

Susana Cadilha.



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