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Researcher: Dr Joseph Lacey

Do divided societies actually benefit from being more democratic? Since the nineteenth century, the dominant view in political theory has been that political systems made up of multiple public spheres, each with different social and political identities are likely to struggle for legitimacy. This, it is argued, leads to poor quality political institutions and ultimately the break-up of the political system through devolution or secession. This tendency is expected to be compounded when the population speak different languages.

The European Union demonstrates nearly all of these features. The traditional view would seem to be that it is doomed to failure. The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum appears to bear this out, as claims of undemocratic rule and missing political legitimacy motivated calls to ‘take back control’. The referendum has led to further demands for similar votes across Europe. How can the EU reform to meet these challenges?

There are some multilingual political systems which have managed to survive, and the ways in which these states have managed to hold themselves together hold lessons for the European Union. By taking the examples of the Belgian and Swiss systems, this project challenges the assumption that multilingual democracies are weak, and examines the reasons behind the unexpected endurance of some multilingual political systems. In advocating the unorthodox view that divided societies may require more rather than less democracy to be sustainable, this project will draw important lessons for the European Union as it faces the necessity of reform.

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