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A history of democracy in Europe: from Ancient Greece to the European Union

black and white photograph, people sitting in a parliament.

Discover educational resources about democracy and democratic values in Europe

by
Raul Gomez Hernandez (opens in new window) (Europeana Network Association member)

There are many challenges threatening democracy in Europe today.

Therefore, it is crucial for us all to know and learn competences for democratic culture so that we do not forget the past and reinforce the values that make us live in democratic societies.

In this blog, we explore from an educational perspective the history of democracy in Europe with its lights and shadows, the values that make us Europeans and the European institutions that represent the citizens.

What are the Ancient Greek roots of democracy?

The word democracy is derived from the Greek word demokratia. This word comes from demos, meaning people, and kratos meaning power. Thus, democracy is defined as the system of government in which power is exercised directly or indirectly by the people.

Democracy was established in Greece in the 5th century BC, where the city of Athens had a direct democracy. In other words, people directly made decisions by voting for aspects of the city's government.

It was limited to a small part of the population - only 50,000 men could vote, out of a population of more than 300,000 people. This differs from our democracies today. After historical struggles, these are open to the largest possible electorate by indirect voting. where we elect representatives to defend our interests in parliamentary seats.

sepia photograph of an ancient Greek amphitheatre.

Democracy in Athens took the shape and form of the theatre. Dialogues and debates were conducted on a stage, where the citizens situated in the theatron (a semi-circular seated space similar to our present-day parliaments) could listen and also intervene. Theatre spaces in Ancient Greece were not only restricted to tragedies and comedies, but to any event in the city.

Despite being limited to a small group of people, there were still those who did not care enough to participate in these democratic processes. In Ancient Greece, they were defined as 'idiots' - 'a private person' who was ignorant of public affairs. This recognised that a democratic society can survive as long as its members participate in it.

How equality became part of democracies

Parliamentary democracy emerged with the Cortes of León, a parliamentary body in the Kingdom of León in the 12th century. In the 18th century, the French Revolution and, in the 19th century, the birth of the modern state led to democracies in Europe spreading. During the first quarter of the 20th century, democratic rights and freedoms in Europe became stronger.

From then until World War II and beyond, in some countries, waves of anti-democratic movements such as Italian or Spanish fascism, German national socialism or communism in Eastern Europe reduced the progress achieved years earlier.

Nevertheless, during these periods, people like Willem Arondéus, Rosa Luxemburg, Jesse Owens and Louise Weiss (among others) stand out as providing moments of light in these periods of darkness.

photograph, people carrying a large rainbow flag during a Pride parade.

In many countries, long periods of protest took place before important rights - such as universal suffrage, equal rights for LGTBIQ+ communities or equality between people regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual or ability - could become real.

Many people throughout history who were discriminated against, currently embody the democratic values of the Europe where we want to live. Examples are the values embodied by characters who had a disability such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Louis Braille, Mileva Marić or Francisco de Goya that makes us reflect on equality and diversity that helps us to have a better future.

What is the European Union and what does it do?

Although countries in Europe govern themselves, today most of them are organised within an alliance called the European Union.

The origin of this community of countries lies in the Schuman Declaration of 1950, which established the European Coal and Steel Community. In 1958, when other countries joined the community, they established the European Parliament. Decade after decade, more countries joined this alliance to become what we know today as the European Union.

As an alliance, the European Union established symbols such as the European flag with stars over a blue background or the European Anthem from Herbert von Karajan’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to the Joy from his 9th Symphony.

postage stamp with Greek text, the EU flag and a blue, yellow and white illustration.

The European Union has three main institutions: the European Commission based in Brussels and Luxembourg, the European Parliament in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg and the Council of the European Union in Brussels.

The European Commission is responsible for proposing and implementing EU law as the executive branch. The European parliament represents the interests of EU citizens and discusses and approves EU regulations. The Council of the European Union represents the interests of the countries that shape Commission proposals and adopts them.

Voting in the European elections

Every five years, European Union citizens elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). A total of 720 MEPs are elected. The last time was in 2019 and this year, elections will be held from 6-9 June.

Elections take place in a four-day period, with each country running the elections to their own processes. Every EU citizen can vote and stand for election. The number of MEPs elected from a political party is proportional to the number of votes it receives.

black and white photograph, people voting at a polling station.

After elections, MEPs organised in political groups elect a President. In a subsequent session, they elect a new President of the European Commission and approve the full College of Commissioners.

It is important for every EU citizen to vote in these elections as MEPS influence all aspects of lives in the European Union around rights, law and also approve budgets. So it is so important to know how European democracy works and how this shapes the institutions of the European Union.