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Inequalities in the EU and their consequences for democracy, social cohesion and inclusion
Deadline: Feb 4, 2016  

 Horizon Europe
 Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme

Topic Description
Specific Challenge:

While a core value of all democratic countries in the EU is equality, inequalities have increased in recent decades. Democracies seem powerless to stop the trend and may sometimes even seem to encourage such inequalities. There is however considerable controversy on whether and how rising inequalities impact upon democracy and social and political inclusion. Inequalities are not only economic and social phenomena, but they also empower and constrain individuals' and groups' political capacities and therefore provide indicators as to how we live together as a community and organise politically. Faced with the growing feeling among citizens that the political institutions in European democracies have become less powerful and allow for inequalities to grow instead of reducing them, it is important to enquire to what extent the increase in social and economic inequalities affects the cohesion of society, the future of our democratic systems and the European project as a whole. It is often claimed and/or assumed that a flourishing middle class constitutes the backbone of European democracy and that its demise at the centre leads to the rise of more polarised, and possibly populist, politics which threatens to undermine the stable and predictable democratic state which emerged gradually after WWII and became characteristic and indeed an essential prerequisite of European Integration. Given that high concentrations of wealth and income among a small proportion of society impacts negatively on social cohesion, the EU and its Member States have to reassess and reappraise the democratic effectiveness and functioning of their political systems. The specific challenge is to consider and evaluate the political ramifications of increasing social and economic inequalities and polarisation for democracy in Europe and the types of policy interventions available, including in terms of democratic revival and participatory and inclusive innovations. Whenever relevant, comparative work on case studies outside EU is encouraged.


The research to address this challenge should in particular focus on the following key dimensions. Proposals can comprehensively address one dimension or combine them. They may include additional aspects which are relevant to addressing the specific challenge.

1) The relation between democracy and the 'middle class'

Over the last decade, a polarisation of income by education has been noticed in most EU Member States as well as in North America. Recent research has found that the share of employment in jobs located in the middle of the skills distribution has declined considerably. At the same time, the proportion of employment at the upper and lower ends of the occupational skills distribution has increased substantially. In the face of this evolution, the so-called 'decline of the middle class' has come to the forefront of the debate. As 'middle class' is itself a contested concept, research should attempt to define it more precisely on the basis of relevant comparative and historical work and also be open a critical reassessment of the continued appropriateness of the notion. It should also test whether the common assumption that increasing inequalities and a growing polarisation between 'rich' and 'poor' are likely to lead to an erosion of the middle class. It will also critically reappraise the claim that a solid and flourishing middle class is a precondition for and guarantor of a thriving democracy. Research should also consider the implications of a declining middle class on levels of trust and cohesion in the EU as well as traditional democratic and political structures more broadly.

2) Increasing inequalities and their impact on classical and non-classical political participation

As analysed by European research projects, the links between income, voter turnout, institutional factors, psychological factors and other forms of democratic participation and citizenship are complex.[[See, for instance, the projects PIDOP ( and MYPLACE (, as well as the policy review "An even closer union among the peoples of Europe? Rising inequalities in the EU and their social, economic and political impacts", European Commission 2015.]] Historically, the rise in inequalities has coincided with a decline in voter turnout and membership of political parties in most Western democracies. A potential further evolution is therefore that, as inequalities increase, several segments of the population in European democracies cease to engage in public participation and become depoliticised, indifferent or even hostile to democracy, at least in its current forms. Research should study correlations between increasing inequalities in its various dimensions and electoral participation and consider causalities in both ways. Due regard should be had also to participatory action repertoires beyond participation in elections. Civil society, civic culture and social participation are important in this regard, but research should be open towards genuinely alternative and innovative, including digital, forms of participation in public discourses too. The impact of these forms of participation on (shared) identities should also be considered. Research should compare, and if opportune contrast, the impact of heightened inequalities between traditional democratic participation on the one hand and engagement in alternative, including more ad hoc action repertoires on the other. Particular attention should be paid to links between non-institutionalised forms of participation and inequalities with regard to education whereby marginalized and vulnerable groups should be taken into account. Research should combine qualitative and quantitative methods and develop causal explanations rather than mere correlations.

3) Young people and the future of European democracies

While young people seem to have a fairly substantial interest in politics and political issues, this seems to translate less and less into comparable levels of engagement with formal politics and the political system in the orthodox sense. This is an alarming sign for the future of European democracies. A more differentiated policy approach is needed, taking into account and responding to social structural inequality affecting young people as well as diversity. Young people's conceptualisation and access to power should also be studied. Research should explore new ways of political engagement and interaction, with the aim of countering the de-politicisation of socially excluded young people. On the basis of qualitative and quantitative empirical work on young people and their links to democracy, it should assess how to "reinvent" democracy in Europe and make our political systems evolve, whereby existing action repertoires and the role of technology may also be considered. Finally, it should also look at how children in Europe, as future citizens, consider the central values of democracy such as equality and solidarity and how such views can determine their future political participation and level of support to various forms of democracy.

The Commission considers that proposals requesting a contribution from the EU in the order of EUR 2.5 million for each dimension would allow this specific challenge to be addressed appropriately. This does not preclude submission and selection of proposals requesting other amounts.

Expected Impact:

Research will increase the knowledge base on the effects of increasing socio-economic inequalities and ensuing polarisation between different parts of the citizenry and European democracy(ies). The relationships, understandings and interplay between democracy, politics and inequalities will be considerably elucidated. Research will make recommendations on the future role of a shrinking middle class for democracy and social cohesion and the ramifications this will have for political engagement and social cohesion. Research will also inform policy makers on how more novel, including ad hoc and digitally supported participation repertoires may or may not qualify to substitute for more traditional democratic, especially electoral, participation. Most importantly, research will provide a critical assessment of current democratic practices in order to build more inclusive and reflective societies and reinvigorate democracies. Research will also inform policy makers of different future scenarios of the development of democracy and political participation in Europe in the light of varying trends in inequalities, putting particular emphasis on implementing new democratic models.

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