13th Apr 2024


Memo from Munich — EU needs to reinvent democracy support

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Ten days ago, I was at the Munich Security Conference. The mood was sombre. Russia on the offensive in Ukraine, the US Republicans blocking support for Ukraine, and the murder of Alexei Navalny in a Russian prison on the opening day of Munich — the outlook was bad.

Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen summed the feeling of observers up when she said that there was nothing left for European leaders to discuss (a brave statement to make at a conference); instead, they really needed to make decisions now.

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  • There is a strong will to speed up enlargement to bring the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia into the EU fold. The danger is that serious democratic shortcomings will be played down. That would be a mistake

I was there to discuss international support for democracy. You would think this would be a big issue in a world where most Munich participants would immediately agree that there is a global confrontation between authoritarian governments and democracies.

But these days most foreign policy debates take a more reactive stance: how to respond to the authoritarian challenge with better military preparedness or by countering foreign information manipulation?

We hear much less about a proactive policy to change the underlying equation: increase the number of democracies, reduce the number of dictatorial regimes, prevent more democracies from degenerating into authoritarian rule. Of course, this is easier said than done, which is why it would be good for the EU to have a plan.

When the Biden administration began in 2020, it had a plan to strengthen democracy worldwide. The Carnegie Endowment recently evaluated these efforts. Their verdict is mixed.

On the positive side, the Biden team made systematic efforts to support democratic openings in countries such as Armenia, Moldova, Ecuador, Malawi or Tanzania. It also upgraded democracy assistance and made clear from the outset that the US has its own serious democracy challenges (some of which the administration has tried to address; a difficult undertaking in the highly-polarised US political context).

Carnegie also pointed out shortcomings: as always, concern for democracy was often overshadowed by other interests. Warm relations with authoritarian Vietnam because it is a counterweight to China (similar dynamics with the central Asian states); muted responses to some of the military coups in African countries because Biden did not want to push them into the Russian camp.

What can the EU learn from this? That it is useful to set priorities. They focus minds and make it possible to evaluate achievements. The EU has some older and newer guidelines and policies on aspects of democracy support, but they need to be brought together and updated into one policy.

Such a policy should include some key markers: first, it should signal that the internal constitution of other states is a central concern.

Tough action in Brazil

Democracy elsewhere is not just a matter of values (to be addressed by funding some NGO projects), but a central foreign policy issue.

Carnegie mentions how US leaders engaged heavily with the Brazilian military in the run-up to the presidential election, making it clear that future cooperation would depend on the military accepting the election results and staying out of politics. This is the kind of tough foreign policy intervention that is sometimes needed to support democracy.

Second, a democracy policy should be more honest than such policies usually are. Information is now readily available to almost everyone, and it pays to be authentic. If the EU does not take a strong stance against authoritarian governments in countries on which it depends for oil and gas, it could say so; while at the same time drawing and enforcing some red lines, for example against those states interfering in the EU's internal policy deliberations (yes, looking at you, Qatar).

Third, EU support for a rules-based international order is consistent with a pro-democracy policy. The human rights that underpin democracy (the right to vote, freedom of expression, etc.) are firmly enshrined in international law. But EU institutions and member states must do more to promote the role of international and regional bodies set up to protect these rights. They need to take these institutions seriously (and member states like Germany should correct their position on the Gaza war to restore their credibility, as I have argued here before).

Fourth, the EU must be subtle about the intersection of democracy and geopolitics. If we pretend that states are democratic because they are in the EU's geopolitical tent, we betray democracy. Conversely, functioning democracies can make geopolitical choices that the EU does not like.

The geopolitical complexity is most evident in EU enlargement. In response to Russia's naked imperialism, EU leaders declared last year that "enlargement is a geostrategic investment in peace, security, stability and prosperity".

There is a strong will to speed up enlargement to bring the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia into the EU fold. The danger is that serious democratic shortcomings will be played down. That would be a mistake.

Semi-authoritarian regimes will not be constructive EU partners within the EU. Hungary shows how to play the system, extorting money from the EU (unanimity is a lucrative business) while selling itself as a Trojan horse in the EU to the highest bidder from outside.

Like the US, the EU suffers from its own internal democracy problems. Although more is being done about it than a decade ago, member states are still reluctant to use all tools available to make the bloc a Union of democracies.

At our dinner Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of free Belarus, remarked that the very concept of democracy is under attack. She is right. We should not respond with business as usual.

Author bio

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


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


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