In 1910 British suffragettes calling for votes for women were arrested for demonstrating outside the House of Commons. In the 1970s, Europe still had colonies in Africa, while Eastern European regimes survived until 1989, and apartheid a few years longer. It is impossible to deny that the last century has seen enormous advances in democracy all over the world.
The number of democracies today has increased, but this has come hand-in-hand with a reduction in their quality. Voter participation has decreased, as has our trust of politicians. Economic considerations have taken over politics, privatisation has destroyed public services, globalisation has destroyed the nation state and as yet democracy within international organisations does not exist.
Marilyn Taylor, of the University of West England, calls this a democratic contradiction. The victory won by the naysayers in the referenda on the European Constitution has contributed to widening the debate.. It is true that, as Giuseppe Allegri wrote, a referendum in itself – as the conclusion to a process that is difficult to reconcile with an authentically public and democratic sentiment – was certainly not the ideal tool for measuring public sentiment. Europe’s societies are complex, fragmented and pluralistic, while the mechanism of referendum starkly reduces choices available, and does not allow for debate or for differences. In any case, the delegitimisation of the constituent process has been strong and clear, and community institutions have been forced, willing or not, to recognise the distance that separates them from living, breathing citizens.
Citizens have grown afraid of institutions that have no clear regulatory process, and are more difficult to hold accountable even than weakened national democracies, institutions that have no apparent relevance to everyday life and are merely a mouthpiece for higher decrees, subordinate to the strong powers of globalisation and complicit in the destruction of the social guarantees won at a national level.