This policy paper was written for the programme „European Academy of Diplomacy“ Warswaw for Marie Curie Promotion 2019/2020. The question to be discussed was: Will a Pandemic like COVID-19 strengthen or weaken democracy in the world?

Diplomacy taught in action

Everything that was considered given in our free democratic society seems to have gone. Extraordinary measures are infringing on fundamental right, justified by “saving life” Critics argue, this might be the precursor of an ailing democracy being supplanted by an authoritarian surge. This policy paper envisages to discuss how crisis is an essential change for democracy, as how this might serve to trigger a long-awaited renewal of its core for democracy through debate.

Why is Corona more than just a disease?

During the last decades society was rather shaped by the threat of international terrorism. Corona has drastically altered this. Corona has shown the negative impacts of globalization. Different than other threats, here, humans being the carrier of the virus, the threat to security is among ourselves, within humanity. This has forced us to a fundamental rethinking of how we live our daily life, how we relate to others, as finally how we structure society now (Shani 2020). Nevertheless, the critical question is not to find a cure against the virus, but whether a democracy or autocracy are more prepared for dealing with risks as side-effects of globalization. Thus, in the first section the impact of risk for policy making will be introduced, comparing various sources of legitimacy between the systems. Based on that, the next section will explain, why crisis has always been a constitutive element of democracy. Finally, it will be discussed, why as how it is time for Germany to set impulses for renewing the democratic discourse through the implementation of new digital deliberations.

Who takes the decision, who takes the risk?

Corona can be considered as the embodiment of what Beck (1986) called “Risikogesellschaft”. Meanwhile during industrialisation, society was marked by the equal distribution of wealth. Conversely, global societies are succumbed to their self-induced risk such as climate change, having been unleashed through technological progress and a global interconnected economy. Regarding Corona, intrusive measures are essential to mitigate rising death tolls, gaining time. Those can be either implemented by voluntary compliance of citizens such as social distancing or by limiting basic civil rights. Both approaches can have their impact. From a political point of view, it is decisive, whether society agreed (democracy) on the measures for a limited time, or those were imposed upon by the government (autocracy) without restriction on time, who decides and who controls at the end.

Agreeing on Beijing Consensus vs. Dreaming the European Dream

Putting extraordinary burdens on society triggers the question, where legitimacy comes from. Conversely to end of history (Fukuyama 1992) after the demise of communism, it seems that democracy is in demise itself. Today, there are foremost two competing promises for the future. Based on the tenets of democracy, freedom and prosperity the European Dream offers the idea, of peace, prosperity, enabling individual self-fulfilment supported by a strong social market economy (Rifkin 2004). However, the “Chinese Model” nowadays seems to offer an alternative, where prosperity and a high standard of living can be reached without democracy.  A new “social contract” is established, where the party ensures stability and general improvement of living conditions in exchange for the continued dominance of government and politics (Tsang 2009:866). Currently both systems will be judged by their approach of good governance in time of crisis. Meanwhile in democracies legitimacy derives directly from the citizens. The government being directly accountable, citizens can either reward or punish certain policies. Conversely, in authoritarian regimes, good governance is only possible, if the regime desires to do so as it has the ability to do so. The nimbus of communism fading within China, good governance is one of the few sources of legitimacy the regime can cling to (Zhou 2016:93).  Yet, both models have in common, that other actors such as NGO, Social Media or transnational corporations have entered the global stage.  governments have to redefine their roles as mediators waging interests (Klijn; Skelcher 2007:597f.).

Democracy is (always) in crisis

The European Union is in severe crisis, as it has always been since its foundation in 1957. Nevertheless, the European Union is still there, the European experiment keeps on being continued. Starting with the crisis of the “empty chair” in the 1960ies, crisis has always been a determining factor for developing the European Union a step further (Cross 2017:1). Regarding the “Postdemocratic Turn” (Crouch 2004), it is argued, that democracy is in crisis, where on a formal basis, democratic institutions like elections are still intact, but citizens tend to have ever less to say how to shape politics.  Dissatisfaction with democracy can be measured by three symptoms. Firstly, through political apathy, when citizens do not feel represented anymore, they quit politics. Otherwise, people become more critical in scrutinizing the activities of political actors. Finally, calls for new forms of political participation become louder (De Blasio, Sorice 2019:5716). What is essential here, crisis is the chance for democracy. Conversely in authoritarian regimes the perception of crisis is rigged by the government. Taking the China famine 1958 to 1961 a distorted information policy led to the strange situation, that China was exporting tremendous amount of food, meanwhile the own population was suffering from starvation. Public accountability is essential for dealing with health issues (Ruger 2005). Crisis constantly directs the view of citizens from an unsatisfactory present to a future of still unfulfilled possibilities, always calling for a redressing of the social fabrics of a society (O´Donnell 2007:6).  Democracy is a perpetual renewing and reforming process. Put in the words of the American philosopher John Dewey (1939): “Democracy is a way of personal life controlled not merely by faith in human nature in general but by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished”.

Time to reinvent democracy

The year 2020 offers a unique window of opportunity for Germany on the international level. Astoundingly, during the turbulent contemporary history of the European Union, Germany managed to fledge from the ailing man of Europe, to become its economic centre. Consequently, having a German president of the European Commission as holding presidency of the European Council soon, expectations are very high for Germany to take a lead in Europe.  As it has been shown, the Chinese Model has established a new kind of “social contract”. Meanwhile, people feel disappointed by the promises and performance of democracy to handle their issues (Blühdorn 2019:8). Therefore, Germany should use its role as mediator in the centre of Europe to initiate so called “Megalogues” (Etzioni 2004). Communities are kept together by shared values, that help to settle conflicts of interests. This debate shall find answers what kind of values and norms societies and democracy are currently based on, as what they want to be become in the future of a globalized world.

Facing the confinement serve as a test ground for the introduction of new digital means. Digital democracy encompasses three essential dimensions for a revival. The make information accessible (eEnabling), more profound deliberations on a wider audience are possible (eEngaging) as finally citizens can influence politics (eEmpowerment) (Maccintosh 2004). Germany should foster new democratic deliberations on a national, European and global level through digital innovations.

Creating a Manifesto for the Future

Globalisation, Climate Change, Digitalisation just to mention a few terms are among the core topics of the future. Following opinion polls, mistrust and scepticism in providing answers to those challenges can be found within democratic societies. Facing a crumbling backbone within society, new sources of legitimacy should be found in a new “Zukunftsmanifest”. Therefore, a civil committee with representatives from the whole society shall be summoned. Nevertheless, to ensure a more diverse and more equal distribution, members of that committee shall be selected by sortition, in other words determined by a lottery. Due to certain quotations, it shall be made sure, that the different parts of society have an equal seat there. Advantages are a better representation of groups normally underrepresented in politics, as more equality, as everyone shall have a certain chance of being elected (Buchstein 2019:368). This will be essential, as citizens will be affected differently by the impacts of the Corona crisis. After that, the topics found here, shall be presented to society on a platform, where the public can make amendments. Those will be worked on by a second committee, drawn from all participants. The final manifesto shall be voted upon in the German Bundestag.

Being United in Diversity again

Starting her term president Ursula von der Leyen announced the establishment of a “Conference on the Future of the European Union”.  Citizens shall have a say how to shape the Union.  Germany and France already contributed a non-paper, outlining the basic procedures. During a two-year consultation process, citizens shall be involved through civil forum, as an online platform enabling participation throughout the union (Kotanidis 2019).  During his term, Germany, facing 75th years after the end of the war, should reinforce the principle of “being united in diversity”. In other words, meanwhile autocracies are based on one opinion, the diversity of opinions is the fundament of democracy. Other member states such as foremost Estonia, Iceland but also France already enriched their democracies with new digital deliberative models (Simon The latest European elections have shown an increased interest in European affairs. Therefore, during its presidency Germany, being known for its Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, should initiate the creation of a European Agency of Political Education. This agency would be responsible for elaborating on current legislative proposals in the European institutions, making them accessible and conceivable by citizens. Through this means, citizens would gain more eEnabling to be used in the forum. This shall be combined with a department, where ePariticpation schemes can be shared among members.

Put Democracy to global debate  

Facing China as an alternative way to prosperity, currently Africa is one of the main grounds for debate between both alternatives (Hackenesch 2018). Most of the Africans (68%) still prefer democracy, however only a minority (43%) are satisfied the way democracy works within their country (Mates 2019). Following surveys by Classen (2020) public support is the cornerstone for democracies to thrive as they are based upon the public.  Therefore, on a global level Germany should support the United Nation Democracy Fund to set up a permanent forum, where digital developers can present their democratic tools, adjusted to their local environments. Digital democracy can help citizens to feel empowered, becoming responsible and accountable. Therefore, an eDemocracy scheme within the fund shall raise consciousness around local communities, how and why contribution as involvement into politics contributed by each citizen should have an influence.

Time to learn democracy again

Often democracy is associated with certain institutions. However, those institutions are just a manifestation of what democracy is ought to be, a process of mutual accountability, based on dialogue for solving issues. Globalisation has drastically changed debate, yet digitalisation has also opened innovative ways to deliberation. Now it is the time of Germany to show, that democracy is not a given right, but a process that flourishes in the democratic attitude of society based upon.

In that sense, admittedly, democracy is in crisis, as it has always been and will always be. The deciding point is, how to perceive crisis as chance, as every generation has to find its own definition of democracy again, adapting it to challenges of its time (Achour; Wagner 2019: 17).


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