Democracy and Counter-Extremism

This two-day course examines growing concerns with counter-extremism and democratic rule. Each facet explores different means by which counter-extremism measures reveal that conventional democratic models tend to undertheorize and/or overlook important values and justifications. Engaging at individual, state, supranational, and international levels, its multi-disciplinary programme aims to stimulate discussion on a wide range of substantive and procedural questions.

The course begins with an introduction to its theoretical foundations. Besides reviewing democratic models and their justifications, important distinctions are drawn between positive, negative, and republican freedom and their significance for democratic theorizing. Such distinctions raise interesting issues for counter-extremism. Differing conceptions of liberty help to clarify how limitations on obstructive or incendiary speech might bolster collective self-realization. Similarly, notions of deliberative and participatory democracy explain how counter-extremism measures protecting truthful information or prohibiting certain groups and associations can be sensibly understood as ‘democratic’. Evaluating the legitimacy and effectiveness of counter-extremism measures requires that we first be precise about core political and legal concepts.

These concerns are given a practical footing by investigating Germany’s domestic counter-extremism practices. To protect its freiheitliche demokratische Grundordnung (‘free democratic basic order’), the German constitution and its domestic laws sanction a wide range of restrictive measures, including banning political associations and parties, mandating loyalty obligations from civil servants, prohibiting defamatory speech against the German state, and using its security intelligence agencies to monitor extremist activity. Among other concerns, these practices presume it is ‘democratic’ to restrict the free exchange of ideas—an assumption that has been often criticized as contradictory. At the very least, these expanding measures are susceptible to abuse—a risk intensified by the vagueness of the basic values of the German constitution. Efforts will be made to clarify the justifications for such provisions and how far they should go. Elaborating on the course’s foundational concepts, key issues include delimiting the core democratic elements to be ‘protected’, the relationship of these defensive measures to limits on constitutional amendment, and the threat levels required to prompt them.

This applied approach is reinforced by three post-9/11 developments in international governance. First, so-called ‘smart sanctions’ have been imposed on terrorism suspects to freeze their (legal) assets and financial means. Originally developed by the UN as a symbolic political action against states and state representatives, smart sanctions have devastating effects as a personalized counter-extremism measure. Besides being publicly registered, those affected are effectively immobilized and prevented from using their financial assets. Proving anything but ‘smart’ in practice, they arguably violate democratic due process and procedural justice guarantees widely protected in domestic and international human rights instruments.

Second, global efforts to identify terrorists and individuals involved in serious crime were intensified by the EU Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive, which requires systematic collection, use, and retention of PNR data on airline passengers. By employing a preventive, risk-based approach, PNR arguably departs from established legal concepts that humans direct their behaviour in accordance with intelligible, reliable, and predictable norms, and conflicts with the principle of autonomy central to our understanding of democratic rule and legitimacy.

Third, the rise of ‘citizenship-security measures’—state counter-terrorism laws curtailing movement and reducing rights access through passport withdrawals or citizenship cancellation—present exceptional challenges to the constitutional foundations of our democracies. They have vast effects on individual rights, operate under diffused mechanisms of accountability, and affect the core of state legitimacy. It is thus crucial to understand how these measures arose, how they operate in practice (including their key challenges), and how they fit within state regulatory frameworks.

Finally, the course highlights two overlooked, but increasingly important, democratic rationales. The first relates to the evolving role of trust in facilitating collaboration involving state and institutional actors on international and supranational levels. For instance, while the notion of ‘mutual trust’ has established itself as the key integration standard in the current EU extradition scheme (ie the European Arrest Warrant), recent lessons from international cooperation on criminal matters suggest it is time to reassess the concept’s meaning and efficacy. At the same time, the dynamic interplay between trust and mistrust in interstate and interorganisational relationships in the area of EU intelligence sharing and oversight must be re-examined. The insights gained from trust theory in the social sciences will be helpful in interpreting EU law and assessing the impact of counter-terrorism measures on effective and continuous cooperation in this context.

The second marginalized rationale is democratic accountability, which despite its central importance for modern constitutionalism, has been slow to develop its own tradition of academic analysis. Though accountability does not necessarily infer democratic governance, democracy could not be conceived, let alone practised, without vast and complex webs of accountabilities between citizens and their representatives. Recent advances in public accountability scholarship have improved mapping and evaluation of state accountability dynamics, thereby exposing dysfunctional deficits or overloads of accountability regimes. This systems-inspired framework not only enhances our ability to interpret the significance of differing political and constitutional structures when evaluating counter-extremism measures, but optimizes jurisdictional fidelity to separation of powers and our capability to effectively hold to account growing manifestations of executive power.

Taken together, this course aims to help us better assess modern-day counter-extremism measures by tabling a comprehensive and more nuanced understanding of democratic interests, rights, and values.


We invite all researchers and practitioners with an interest in the study of public law, counter-terrorism, intelligence, national security or other related disciplines to attend the ‘Democracy and Counter-Extremism’ workshop (26–27 June 2023), organized on behalf of Professor Dr Ralf Poscher at the Department of Public Law at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. This is planned to be an in-person event.

Only applicants with an institutional affiliation email are eligible to register below for the event. External applicants (ie individuals employed by universities, research institutes, or other institutions outside the Max Planck Law network) must provide us with additional information on their career path and professional or research interests through a link to their profile on an institutional website or on LinkedIn.

Since we are particularly interested in creating networking opportunities and establishing stronger institutional ties with other Institutes within the Max Planck Law network, internal applicants (ie researchers employed by an Institute within the Max Planck Law network) will be given preference on a ‘first come, first served basis’. Applications made by external applicants will be evaluated after the registration deadline has passed and subject to availability of places.

The registration deadline for this event is 17.00 CEST on 2 June 2023. All registered applicants will receive a final confirmation email by 7 June 2023.


Travel and accommodation costs

For internal registrants (ie researchers employed by an Institute within the Max Planck Law network), the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law will be prepared to cover accommodation costs at a hotel in Freiburg im Breisgau, which has already been selected and booked. Unfortunately, we are unable to cover travel costs for internal registrants. The travel costs for internal registrants should be covered by their respective home Institutes within the Max Planck Law network.

Unfortunately, we are unable to cover travel or accommodation costs for external registrants (ie individuals employed by universities, research institutes or other institutions outside the Max Planck Law network).

Both internal and external registrants are entitled to participate in the coffee breaks and lunches provided on-site at the event.

Following the receipt of final confirmation, please indicate within a week prior to the event (via email to both of the project co-ordinators, see contact details below) whether you would like to participate in the informal pre-conference dinner on Sunday, 25 June 2023 and/or in the conference dinner on Monday, 26 June 2023, which are planned to take place at selected restaurant(s) in the city centre in Freiburg im Breisgau. Unfortunately, we are unable to cover any food or drinks costs on these occasions, which means that every registrant is responsible for covering their own individual food and drink costs.

For more information, please contact:

Dr Sofiya Kartalova, Project Co-ordinator

Dr Randall Stephenson, Project Co-ordinator


Registration form

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