The previous months have been filled with symbolic events in the Arab world and in Eastern Europe which revived the discussion about the role of the European Union in democracy support whenever membership is off the table.
In Eastern Europe, the EU is wavering between carrots and sticks, demonstrating the difficulty of stimulating political change. The Tymoshenko affair raises serious doubts about the state of democracy in Ukraine just weeks away from Euro 2012 football tournament. After Angela Merkel referred to Ukraine as a ‘dictatorship’, President Yanukovych suggested it was time to ‘pause’ in relations with the EU. As a result, Ukraine becomes increasingly politically isolated, and the EU-Ukraine relations worsened, with the negotiations of the association agreement put on halt. Many European leaders decided to shun the Yalta summit of East and Central European states in May.
In Belarus, after a new series of sanctions imposed in February on individuals and companies connected to President Lukashenka’s regime, all EU Ambassadors were recalled to their capitals. The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that these ‘tactics of intimidation’ would not have any impact. As always, the EU's effort in that region remains foreshadowed by its ambiguous relations with Russia - most recently epitomised by the muted reaction of the EU to President Putin's re-election.
Revolutions in the EU’s Southern Neighbourhood have brought wind to EU’s democratisation efforts while exposing the consequences of limited commitment. In theory, democratic reform has always been a key condition for continued EU support to the Arab dictators. The reality, however, was dictated by the politics of interest and a tit-for-tat strategy whereby Europeans turned a blind eye to limited progress and continued oppression in exchange for vague sense of regional stability and security. Although the changes across North Africa present the Union with the opportunity to reverse its negative image, they also create uncertainties.
Against this background, the EU has embarked on an internal debate about its future role in democracy support. On the level of EU political discourse, the ‘more for more’ principle has become a buzzword interchanged with another catchphrase - ‘deep democracy’. Simultaneously, the EU is pursuing the idea of operationalising a more assertive attitude towards democracy support by creating the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). This hybrid entity could possibly draw on elements from an independent foundation and a trust fund, supports actors of democratic change currently neglected by the existing EU instruments (e.g. political and social movements and non-registered NGOs). The debate so far demonstrates serious disagreements on how the new support paradigm should take shape.
First, should the support given be guided by the EU's strategic interest, or should it be guided by an overarching, inclusive concept? This lack of common vision manifested itself most strongly in the debate regarding the inclusion of direct support from the EU to political parties. This is seen by some as the most obvious element currently missing in the EU’s foreign policy toolbox, while simultaneously viewed by the others as dragging the EU into the unwanted business of regime change. On a smaller scale, a similar line of discussion emerged with regard to the EU financial support for individual political dissidents.
Second, should the EU support only actors embracing the Western-style democratic ethos? The increasing role of the Islam-inspired actors within the emerging political landscape in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco or Libya make it clear that the EU will need to build new political relations in the region. Years of entanglement in the ‘Islamist dilemma’ have created a vacuum of political direction concerning how to engage with Islamist political parties. A further challenge is in building functioning democracy support partnerships with various actors on the ground. While the EU is making efforts to engage in direct dialogue with local groups, there is also a certain lack of understanding of this new political landscape.
Third, the question remains what this new assertive EU attitude to democracy promotion would mean for the balance between the inter-governmental and supranational power dynamics in European policy-making? When observing the current inter-institutional exchanges surrounding the democracy support debate, an impression is given that that for many key actors involved, the main focus appears to be not so much on the content of the debate, but rather the institutional implication and power dynamics possibly resulting from it. Consequently, the core discussions on the content of the EU democracy support efforts remain largely the domain of think-tankers and academics.
The EU’s flagship initiatives in the region to date, the Barcelona Process and the Union for the Mediterranean, were also based on the ‘strengthening of democracy and respect for human rights’. So why and how can this time be different?
If the EU wants to demonstrate its commitment and reliability, it needs to abandon a ‘low cost democracy’ model (i.e. not offering much and at the same time not expecting any real progress) which has prevailed in previous decades, and upgrade its political, societal and economic links with the region. What we suggest for the EU is to go beyond the on-going process of creative patching of the existing instruments, not being afraid to assume more decisive political leadership. The EU needs to strike a balance between an inclusive approach in its democracy support action (to support democracy as a process, rather than picking the winners), while at the same time vetting its beneficiaries to ensure that its assistance is not rendered to those espousing values incompatible with the fundamental rights.
New policies or instruments cannot be a substitute for a strong and consistent commitment to democracy. Funding and new partnerships will definitely be welcomed by the societies in question but they cannot be treated as lone political carrots with the sole objective of appeasing a bad European conscience. The sensation of fulfilment and the sense of mission provided by the Arab Spring should be used as inspiration to take up even more daring tasks in Eastern Europe, Asia or South America.
This article has been co-authored with Wanda Troszczynska van Genderen who is Foreign Affairs Advisor at the Policy Department in the European Parliament (Brussels).