Friday

5th Mar 2021

Column

Biden's 'democracy summit' would be good for US - and EU

Europe will breathe a sigh of relief if Donald Trump vacates the White House. But what would Joe Biden bring?

Christoph von Marshall from Germany's Der Tagesspiegel predicts that disappointment will quickly follow, as it did in 2009 after Barack Obama's election: "Each side expects that the other side changes, so it can continue its own policies".

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  • 'Democracies often appear to be unstable, because free media give us a clear sense of tension and struggles in society. But despite attempts to prove the opposite, authoritarian governments are less stable and more dangerous'

The risk is real. Europe needs to define or adapt its positions in many areas. Many of these are already much discussed, such as relations with China and Russia, or defence spending.

However, there is another priority that Biden has announced that is not yet debated in Europe: democracy.

In his campaign pledge, Biden announced that within a year of taking office he would convene a global summit on democracy to "renew and the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world".

Europe's usual reaction would be to half-heartedly joining the summit, showcase its many democracy support projects, in which is spends so much money, while privately moaning: why talk about democracy again? Is the US hinting at more invasions and regime changes? What does the US have the world to teach anyway after the Trump debacle?

The EU must avoid this reflex.

Our times are too serious and the question of democracy is too central to this century. If the forces of authoritarianism keep beating back democracy at the same rate as during the last 10 years, we are moving into even darker times.

Democracy is the underlying question of many EU foreign policy challenges, be they China, Russia or Turkey or internet governance. It would be even more so if Trump won a second term.

However, democracy remains far from our foreign policy strategy. In the last report on the EU´s global strategy, democracy only figures as a theme in EU-Africa relations, or on the question of how to deal with fragile states.

In a time of re-emerging ideological competition, democracy cannot be treated as a sideshow.

China and Russia long ago switched from a defensive game of 'don't interfere with our domestic politics', going on the offensive to interfere across the world to undermine democracies and ensure that more countries are dependent on them.

From Hong Kong to Belarus, they actively work to make sure that people cannot participate in politics and determine their own destiny.

Enough. The EU needs to include democracy as a central part of its foreign policy, both at home and abroad. According to Carnegie Europe, EU development funding is spent overwhelmingly in countries with hybrid regimes or autocracies. That´s wrong.

Democracies should automatically benefit from support and good relations with the EU. Attacking our democracies should carry a steep price.

Unfortunately, news of Russian disinformation campaigns against the EUtend to be shrugged off. They should instead be treated for what they are: the crossing of a red line.

Being on the side of democracy reflects our values. It also reflects our interests.

Democracies often appear to be unstable, because free media give us a clear sense of tension and struggles in society. But despite attempts to prove the opposite, authoritarian governments are less stable and more dangerous.

The Covid-19 emergency could have been avoided if China had free media to inform its citizens and the world of what was going on from the beginning.

The whole post-Soviet space is a hotbed of conflicts and uprisings as people's aspirations are blocked by authoritarian and corrupt governments.

The EU can take another page from Biden's pledge: he has not simply warmed up old US language on democracy.

His pledge is not triumphant, it does not involve a shining city on a hill. Instead, he pointedly talks about restoring democracy in the US and to shore up its global moral leadership before convening a global summit.

To be taken seriously, the EU should start by dealing with serious democracy problems in its member states.

The EU is not a club of democracies anymore. The Hungarian and Polish governments provide real-life lessons on how to destroy democracy's institutions, and they have plenty of eager students. Any attempt to paint a different picture would be hypocritical.

The EU's language on democracy should also change, moving away from vague and lofty language into specific and precise focus on how authoritarian governments and political parties undermine the rules of our democratic game.

Not 'populism', it's 'authoritarianism'

For example, instead of relying on vague discussions of 'populism', an unhelpful definition at the best of times, we need to refer to such forces by their real name: authoritarianism.

This makes it clear that the issues facing us are not a question of political opinion, but show what lies clearly beyond democracy's boundaries. Authoritarianism in its many forms is the main concern of democrats and should be for the EU.

Authoritarian governments try to construct civilisational conflicts in which democratic rules become less important. To undercut this rhetorical construction, the EU should signal clearly that democracy offers a place for anybody who respects the rules, whether someone is religious or not, progressive or conservative.

It should also stress that democracy has two sides: majority decision cannot overrule the protection of minorities.

There is no democracy without human rights and the rule of law. Likewise, human rights are not a straitjacket for democratic governments: they can straighten and change policy directions depending on electoral outcomes.

International law provides a rather calibrated balance of the competing concerns of the margin of manoeuvre for elected governments versus protecting rights of electoral and other minorities.

As the EU supports a rule-based international order, it should stress the role of international legal obligations as the foundation of a global debate on democracy.

The EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has used refreshingly clear and fresh language to explain European foreign policies. He should now give us straight-talk on democracy.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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