As the United States retreats from democracy promotion, it falls to the European Union to support and exemplify democratic values.

In his recent article on the state of democracy support in the United States (Is the United States giving up on democracy abroad?), Thomas Carothers analyses the trend over recent decades. His conclusion is that US democracy support is mainly taking place at the low policy level, and that decreasing levels of enthusiasm for the subject will now face further decline, or at least not return to the high policy table. While the picture painted may be bleak, the underlying message for the democracy community is clear – there is a need to work together to underscore the clear benefits of bolstering democracy. This is also the case in Europe where the prevailing winds of foreign policy point towards less support for democracy abroad.

What of Europe?

Democracy, both as a system and fundamental value, still seems firmly rooted in the DNA of the European Union. Indeed, the EU helped bring about stability and collaboration after centuries of war and conflict in Europe. From the beginning, the EU has recognised that democracy comes in many different forms and shapes – epitomised by its slogan: unity in diversity. All current 28 members of the EU have a completely different governance set-up and democratic system, but all are, as a key requirement to join, democratic. Numerous EU regulations have underlined the value of democracy and Article 21 of the Treaty of the European Union specifies democracy as a foreign policy priority of the EU.

Yet recent policy documents suggest that democracy support has been downgraded on the list of EU priorities. While the newly-written EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy lists democracy as in the interest of European citizens, it is noticeably short on democracy language and contains no policy commitments on democracy support. The strategy is predominantly focused on security and stability, which have become the overarching concernsof the most powerful EU member states and the EU foreign policy establishment. In a similar vein, the focus on migration and the deal between the EU and Turkey have called into question the values espoused by the EU and its member states. Preliminary discussions on the revision of the EU Consensus on Development point in the same direction – with the short-term concerns of stability, migration and security trumping long-term values. EU commitment to democracy support abroad is less robust than in previous years for a variety of reasons, both domestic and international.

Three factors

Domestic developments within EU member states and at the regional level, have thrown into question the credibility and legitimacy of EU support for democracy abroad. EU institutions have for long been a scapegoat for both national governments and European citizens alike, for being undemocratic, lacking transparency as well as legitimate representative power. Indeed, the call for democratic reforms at the level of the EU remains loud. One only has to look at the campaigns during the recent referendums on the EU (the campaign for Brexit being the most recent and prominent), the rise of several ‘populist’ parties that have a strong anti-EU message, and the low levels of participation in European elections to see this democratic shortfall confirmed. Within EU member states, several governments are moving away from core democratic principles and practices, through restrictive media legislation or silencing opposition voices. The success of fringe parties further exacerbates the occurrence of political stalemates and the inability to form stable governments. Trust in politics and political leadership has been decreasing for years and citizens feel even further removed from their political representatives.

People in democracies have more freedoms, are safer, are more prosperous, better educated, live longer and are generally happier.

On top of this decreasing legitimacy, the international political arena has entered a phase with a multipolar and competitive world of nations each with diverse and explicit self-interests. This is also reflected in the EU’s external relations. Although democracy remains one of the formal bedrocks of European (foreign) policy, in practice the hard power of (bilateral) interventions and selective trade interests often win out over democratic values. In general it seems the soft power attraction of the EU has diminished due in part to the aforementioned legitimacy problem, but also due to the financial crisis. This coupled with the failure of the EU response to conflicts in Syria and Libya has led many commentators and diplomats to argue for a turn towards hard power alternatives. 

When protests spread from the basin minier in Tunisia to many states around the Middle East and North Africa hopes for a new era of more representative politics were high. Instead, the prevailing narrative of the past few years is that these protests led predominantly to state collapse and extremism. This has led to several commentators arguing that opening up space for political competition ultimately leads to disorder, harming both European security and economic interests. Under this line of reasoning, it is better to promote models of governance practiced in Ethiopia and Rwanda where a strong state is combined with poverty alleviation strategies. The implications for democracy assistance are clear – supporting nascent democratic movements is not worth the risk.

Wait a minute

While on the face of it, all three of these factors (decreasing legitimacy, the rise of realpolitik, the Arab Spring backlash) have played a role in influencing EU support for democracy – if looked at in the context of the bigger picture, the justification for their impact on policy is less than robust. Opinion polls worldwide, including the EU barometer, indicate that the current ‘crisis’ is less a crisis of democracy but more a crisis of politics and an utter lack of trust in politicians. These polls at the same time confirm that the vast majority of European (and world) citizens still favour democracy over any other form of governance. People in democracies have more freedoms, are safer, are more prosperous, better educated, live longer and are generally happier.

Similarly, while prevailing EU discourse is more about self-interest than fundamental values, EU policy choices are not binary. The promotion of the values of the European Union is in the interest of its member states. A vast majority of refugees, terrorist organisations and economic migrants that are seen by many voters in Europe as a threat to society do not come from democracies; they come from authoritarian regimes or failed dictatorships. In addition, EU soft power and values remain powerful – it is after all the reason so many migrants and refugees are coming to Europe’s shores. The desire to replicate characteristics of the European socio-economic and political model certainly contributed to the Arab Spring and Euromaidan in Ukraine.

While policymakers are right to focus on the consequences of the Arab Spring, one clear conclusion is that the events of 2011 have, once again, shown that dictatorships are inherently unstable. Democracies are far better at adaptation and self-renewal – it only takes one protest to delegitimise a dictatorship, particularly those built on personalised rule. As a recent case in point, riots in Tunisia in 2016 based on similar grievances to those in 2011 did not lead to the deaths of protestors or to a revolution. The resilience of democracies is a key reason for supporting them overseas not least when coupled with the normative arguments for democratic governance. The aforementioned global strategy gets it right when it notes that a “resilient society featuring democracy, trust in institutions, and sustainable development lies at the heart of a resilient state”.

Turning adversity into opportunity

The EU should certainly react to current policy trends but it does not have to be reactive. Democracy remains the most popular system of government, EU values and soft power are still ‘powerful’, and authoritarian regimes are not the long-term answer to security concerns. To start with, demonstrating that democracy is never finished and will always need continuous adaptation and reflection on how to respond to developments in society can convey a more realistic starting point in addressing the challenges of democratisation. As Tom Carothers points out in his article, being faced with challenges within your own democracy is not a weakness, but can serve as a window of opportunity to start a true dialogue with representatives of developing democracies on what it means to shape societies.

Many interesting initiatives around the world are looking at addressing the changing socio-economic landscape within the boundaries of accountable and democratic governance. Experimentation with new forms of democracy, political representation and participation, and support for accountable and inclusive political parties and functioning multi-party systems is essential in this regard. The diversity of the response of different states to the need to improve representative politics offers an opportunity to also see if new initiatives in Europe and elsewhere offer solutions. The EU has a clear added value in that it contains, within its boundaries, a rich and diverse set of experiences with democracy. The wealth of experience and diversity – both with different political systems and states, different groups of peoples and various jurisdictions – should be seen as a crucial strength of the international presence of the EU.

Moving forward

By capitalising on this rich experience, both good and bad, the EU can help to underline that democracy comes in various shapes and sizes. In this vein, a broad interpretation of democracy should be employed when programming external support, including the need for inclusive politics, for a spirit of cooperation and dialogue, and for space to ensure diverse participation and transparent representation.From a policy standpoint, the EU must emphasise the importance of democratic governance for state resilience within the framework of the Global Strategy. Democracies are better at adaption, self-renewal and are far more likely to provide the framework for more resilient societies and economies. Finally, in terms of development policy, Goal 16 of Agenda 2030 on inclusive and accountable institutions must be reflected as a vital ingredient of any new European Consensus on Development.

The EU, its member states and European non-governmental organisations have the means and legitimacy for taking a lead in articulating an innovative response to the threat to democracy by engaging with citizens and policymakers (from the parliament to local authorities and more informal citizens’ groups). This effort should be reflected in policy and programming but it must also be cooperative – only by working together can the democracy support community ensure that its voice is heard and that all views are incorporated.


About the author

The European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) is a non-profit organisation supporting democracy worldwide. It comprises 14 European civil and political society organisations from 11 EU Member States present in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.


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