6th Dec 2022

US pushing EU into more edgy pro-democracy work

Washington is pressuring Brussels to create a US-type pro-democracy foundation to accelerate change in ex-Soviet and Middle East states, but the European Commission wants no part in the deal.

"We think it's high time Europe had the same kind of facility [as the US' National Endowment for Democracy - NED]," senior US diplomat Scott Carpenter told external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner at a Brussels seminar on Thursday (7 December).

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  • Bald Eagle - America's national symbol, but the EU is less hawkish in 2006 than in the early 1990s (Photo: Wikipedia)

"If you want the best bang for your buck, the only way to promote civil society in the world is through NGOs," he said. "We should be pushing them [foreign states], yes, I use the word 'pushing,' to encourage them to be more democratic."

NED chief Carl Gershman - who channels $140 million a year of US cash directly to NGOs - argued EU leaders cannot drive human rights as forcefully as an "arm's length" EU foundation could, because governments need to juggle energy and security agendas at the same time.

"Is there really a European way that is different from the US way?" he asked. "There is an effective way and an ineffective way."

People such as as Roel von Meijenfeldt, who heads a Dutch NED-type organisation, and British Conservative MEP Edward Mc-Millan Scott, who wants Ms Ferrero-Waldner to give him €60 million a year for a European Democracy Foundation, also turned up the heat.

Mr Mc-Millan Scott said he had free rein to channel EU cash into ex-Soviet states between 1992 and 1997 when he ran the European Democracy Initiative, but the programme "lost its edge" when commission "bureaucracy" took it back.

Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK already have highly effective, state-funded foundations that work with grass roots pro-democracy NGOs in parallel to their national governments' big politics games, Mr von Meijenfeldt indicated.

"In 1988 to 1992 the EU...spent €160 million to support the democratic movement in South Africa, to help make a peaceful transition - all this support was carried out through European NGOs," the Dutchman said.

Getting back the edge

The European Commission of 2006 is showing little interest in getting back the "edge" of the early 1990s however, with Brussels so far declining to give any ear to MEPs' plans for an EU foundation or to Washington's call for a joint US-EU foundation.

"Well, this is their idea, this is the parliament," Ms Ferrero-Waldner said dismissively on the European Democracy Foundation project on Thursday, while praising existing EU tools for pro-democracy work abroad.

EU election observation missions, the financial incentives of the newly-enhanced European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), EU global development aid and the enlargement process "have, I think, made a real difference" she said.

"You are not always aware of everything [the EU is doing]," Ms Ferrero-Waldner counter-punched Mr Carpenter, pointing out the EU spends €2 billion a year on "democracy-related" work to the US' $1.4 billion and that "human security is central to my thinking."

The commissioner's "ENP-plus" is not well-regarded in Brussels itself, with one EU diplomat this week telling EUobserver "it's purely for the media. The kind of money they are offering Ukraine in 2007 to 2013 - a government official can make that in bribes in one year."

US vulnerable to criticism

But if Brussels "bureaucracy" and "lack of bravery" is routinely lambasted by diplomats, politicians and NGO activists, even people such as Mr von Meijenfeld and Mr Mc-Millan Scott seem to have qualms about US foreign policy "idealism" as well.

Mr von Meijenfeldt has criticised US-model "competitive" transformation in the past, where funding for openly-revolutionary groups such as Odpor in Serbia, Pora in Ukraine or Zobr in Belarus can lead to "open conflict" with incumbent clans.

And Mr Mc-Millan Scott pointed out Mr Carpenter's visit comes at a "sensitive time," referring to the US' recent Baker-Hamilton report, which highlights failures in the US' biggest pro-democracy project today - the Iraq war - which has cost almost 1 million lives since 2003.

"The fact is the US has lost a lot of credibility on its foreign policy in recent years. This makes us extremely vulnerable to criticism from countries such as Russia," the president of a US pro-democracy NGO - who did not want to be named - told EUobserver.

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