Words of hope by European Commission President at Athens Democracy Forum

Words of hope by European Commission President at Athens Democracy Forum
The Stoa of Attalos in Greece and the Church of the Holy Apostles as seen from Acropolis hill, Credit: A. Savin, Wikimedia Commons

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave a key note speech on democracy at the Athens Democracy Forum which took place this week in Athens.

The Athens Democracy Forum, organized by the Democracy & Culture Foundation in association with The New York Times, is an annual event which convenes leaders from government, business, civic society and the nonprofit sector to debate and explore real solutions to the most pressing issues facing democracy.

This year the Forum marked its tenth anniversary under the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, the development towards illiberal democracies and other challenges to democracy around the world. While the Forum can celebrate, democracy cannot, the organisers said.

Overall, it seems that two trends are emerging at the same time, according to the Forum. Democracies are in dire trouble, but an exciting renewal is also taking shape.

Among the most significant events at the Forum was this year's City of Athens Democracy Award to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and his speech via video-link. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave the Aristotle Address in the Stoa of Attalos, a reconstructed building named after an ancient Greek king.

Historical lessons

In her speech, the Commission president referred to the victory of a Greek alliance of city states 2,500 years ago against a mighty Persian fleet. “Historians and poets described that war in very clear terms: For the first time in history, autocracy attacked democracy. And autocracy failed, while democracy prevailed.”

She described Russia's attack against Ukraine as yet another battle in a war between autocracy and democracy that has been raging for 25 centuries. “I am deeply convinced that democracy will prevail. But it is also sobering to see that the tragedies of the past keep repeating themselves, and that too many, in Europe, have underestimated the threats both outside and inside our borders.”

Europe’s modern history after WWII is about how democracy has spread across the continent, she said, with Greece, Spain and Portugal freeing themselves from authoritarian rule and the fall of the Iron Curtain leading to EU enlargement and former Communist countries becoming members of the EU.

“For more than 70 years, our continent has marched incessantly towards democracy. And many of us started to believe that Europe and all humanity would keep advancing naturally towards freedom and peaceful cooperation. We started to take democracy for granted. Today, we realise that history does not always move in a straight line.”

Athenian democracy was far from perfect or complete and excluded slaves and women but its values should still guide the EU today. Von der Leyen focused on three European values with roots in ancient Athens that are threatened today. “The idea that power belongs to citizens. The idea that we are all equal before the law. The idea that free speech is a fundamental right.”

Referring to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was critical to some aspects of democratic rule in the Greek city states, she said: “Today, we know that democracy does not end at the ballot box. Democracy also means equal pay for equal work. It means equal responsibilities and equal rights when it comes to care or career. Democracy means equal access to power, be it in politics or in business.”

“There is one concept from Aristotle that fits perfectly to democracy. It is the idea of dynamis, or potentiality. Democracy is ever changing; it is a promise that must constantly be fulfilled. And this is what makes it stand out from autocracy. Democracy may not be perfect, but it is always perfectible.”

From ancient Greece, she went straight to Ukraine and its war of defense for its independence and democracy. “When we granted Ukraine the status of candidate to joining our Union, some objected that Ukrainian democracy may still be too young. But since the Maidan protests of 2014, Ukraine's democracy has grown so much.”

“The country's institutions are now passing the ultimate stress test of war. Most of this progress has been achieved because the people of Ukraine have Europe in their hearts and their minds.” The same is true also for the candidate countries in the Western Balkans and for Moldova and Georgia, who have also applied to join the EU, she added.

From Ukraine, she continued to assess the internal challenges facing the EU. “All democracies are constant work in progress, including inside our Union. The European Union was built on the promise of ‘unity in diversity'. But this promise has yet to be achieved in full.”

She exemplified with a list of current problems. “The path towards full equality for all citizens is still long. Racism and antisemitism have not disappeared. And in parts of our Union, minorities are not always respected. LGBTIQ rights continue to be violated. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are still challenged.”

Without naming and shaming any EU member states, she said that judges had been stripped of their immunity, or driven out of office without justification. Serious concerns have been raised on corruption. “These developments are against our values, against our Treaties and against our democracy. And as guardian of the Treaty, it is our obligation to act.”

Four EU priorities

Despite at times severe disagreements exist between the EU member states, she is convinced that the overwhelming majority of citizens believe that Europe is their destiny. She focused on four priorities.

First of all, the new hybrid threats and disinformation. To combat these threats the Commission has announced a new Defence of Democracy Package and introduced legislation to screen foreign direct investment in European companies for security concerns. “If we do that for our economy, should we not do the same for our values,” she said, paraphrasing another ancient thinker, the Jewish religious leader Hillel.

Second, the multiple crises, such as the pandemic and the health and economic crises it caused.  The EU proved that a democratic Union was better equipped than autocracies and authoritarian regimes to deliver on the great crises of our times. Vaccines were developed in democracies, where freedom of science and freedom to excel count.

“Democracies can deliver if we act united. We are able to find answers that are more powerful than just the sum of 27 Member States,” she said.

Third, on new frontiers. “Putin's attack against Ukraine is an attempt to reverse the course of history, and to stop the long journey of democracy.”

But this is not only about Russia's war. The number of democracies in the world reached an all-time high in 2012, but it has fallen since then. She mentioned military coups from Mali to Myanmar, the lost democracy in Afghanistan, the fight for human rights in Iran, the weaponizing of fossil fuels by Russia and financial aid by China.

The EU offers the Global Gateway, its new programme to address the global investment gap for infrastructure. It is driven by democratic values, offering sustainable investments and promoting democratic values, the Commission President said. “I want our Union to stand at the side of every country that longs for freedom, and every young democracy that strives for more – in Europe and beyond.”

Her final point was climate change which threatens future generations and in fact already is here.  “Climate change is the colossal burden we are slamming on our children's future. If we want young people to have faith in our democracies, we must finally put young people at the heart of everything we do.”

Referring to the recent Conference on the Future of Europe, she said that the Commission has proposed to enshrine solidarity between generations in the fundamental Treaties of the European Union. “Every action that our Union takes should be inspired by a simple principle: That we should do no harm to our children's future. And we should leave the world a better place for the next generations.”

She concluded that democracy is the promise that people can be masters of their own future, determine the course of their countries, and change the course when necessary. “Autocracies always look backwards”. In fact, they are trying to distort and rewrite history, as Kremlin is doing now, to justify their regimes and wars.

Her final words associated indirectly to religious beliefs. “I know that we are all being tested. Whether we defend democracy. Whether we are steadfast, united and determined. Each and every one is part of our resilience. It is up to us to protect our future, it is up to us to make democracy prevail, it is up to us to stand in unity.”

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