The history of democracy is inextricably linked with European history; democracy is a profoundly European idea. The word comes from the Greek and means “rule of the people”. As early as 600 BC, a first basic constitutional law was passed laying down citizens’ rights and responsibilities. The EU is committed to this European tradition. This is explicitly regulated by the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which establishes the principles of democracy and the rule of law for the EU. In this way, the EU now guarantees the democratic rights of 500 million Europeans, making Europe the world’s second-largest democracy after India.
Democracy not only includes the fact that we in the EU enjoy the benefits it brings and have been living in peace for more than 70 years. Open discussion is also an indispensable component. Everyone is called upon to be involved – whether as an individual citizen or within a group, for example as a member of a party or citizens’ initiative. Democracy depends on civil society. And on the right to freely express an opinion, peaceably argue with others about the best way, and ultimately to accept majority decisions. At the same time, these majorities in democracies, such as those that have long thrived in Europe, must not be used to completely marginalise and tyrannise minorities.
Democracies – even in Europe – are never perfect. Democracies must be constantly questioned, adjusted and transformed. And democracy comes in different shapes and sizes. In Europe, there are democracies with powerful presidents, as in France; with a strong federal system, as in Germany; with a large number of referendums, as in Switzerland. Even monarchies have a role to play in many European democracies. But they all share the crucial criterion of open and free elections. Throughout its long history, Europe has experienced often enough where it can lead when electoral registers contain only the names of the parties and candidates selected by the rulers, when citizens are monitored and harassed in the polling booths, when opposition activists are treated like criminals. That is why it is the clear and firm objective of Europe and the EU to be a constellation of true democracies.
But a democracy must also be able to defend itself – against all those who want to take advantage of its freedoms in order to abolish it. Here, too, freedom of expression is crucial, along with the educational work of the media and of associations that give many companies and their employees a voice. Associations that are active in Europe, such as VDMA (the Mechanical Engineering Association), feel very strongly about Europe, and this makes them an indispensable component of democratic opinion-forming processes.