15. Januar 2019 | EDP Wire | Sonja Grimm

Democracy Promotion and the European Union

Dieser Wire-Beitrag ist Teil unserer EDP Wire Series für die wir wöchentlich Beiträge aus unserem gemeinsamen EDP Policy Paper veröffentlichen. In den nächsten Wochen werden wir  weitere Fragen dazu beantworten, wie Demokratieförderer und Akteure in verschiedenen Weltregionen mit Erfolgen und Scheitern von Demokratieförderungsaktivitäten umgehen. Sonja startet diese Woche mit der Europäischen Union, als einen von zwei Hauptakteuren bezogen auf internationale Demokratieförderung. Sonja argumentiert, dass europäische Demokratieförderung sich momentan vor allen Dingen vier Herausforderungen stellen muss: einem Verlust der Glaubwürdigkeit, einem Mangel an Effektivität, fehlender Einsatzbereitschaft und Wettbewerb mit Regionalmächten, die europäische Demokratieförderungsbemühungen unerminieren.

Status quo

Since its foundation, the EU has been a community of values of liberal democracies. This ‘democracy consensus’ informs EU democracy promotion (DP), especially EU enlargement policy, as its most comprehensive foreign policy framework. In 1993, the Copenhagen Council opened a membership perspective for all associated Central and Eastern European countries – on the condition that they became functioning democracies and market economies capable of applying the EU body of law. The EU rewarded compliance with financial and technical assistance, the opening of accession negotiations and, ultimately, membership.

Accession conditionality has also inspired the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) towards the Eastern and Southern neighbors and the EU development cooperation policy towards developing countries worldwide, where partner countries do not have a membership perspective. Here, progress in democratization is rewarded with the provision of technical or financial assistance, economic or security partnerships or visa liberalization.

Three main features characterize overall EU DP. First, it is top-down-oriented. The EU directly negotiates the conditions of cooperation with partner country governments and their line ministries. Assistance is given to state actors. Through the European Instrument of Democracy and Human Rights and the European Endowment for Democracy, a complementary bottom-up strategy supporting civil society has been implemented, but plays only a minor role in the Union’s total aid spending. Second, the EU prefers an indirect approach to DP over a direct approach. Most of the EU’s financial assistance is dedicated to socio-economic development and the technical side of state building supporting democratization indirectly via modernization, whereas direct DP for the building of democratic institutions and the rule of law receives only a minor share. Third, EU DP sequences security first, democracy second. Especially in post-conflict or fragile contexts, the EU gives money to the building of security and stabilization before investing in democratic institution building.[1]


Currently, the Union’s DP is confronted with four major challenges: first, EU DP loses credibility as a consequence of illiberal internal tendencies in member countries. In several member states, right wing populist parties have won a substantial share of seats in national legislatures (e.g. Belgium, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, UK, and most recently, Germany), or have even successfully campaigned for office in the political executive (e.g. France, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy). Their success can partly be explained by increasing skepticism inside the member states’ electorates in connection with European integration, its bureaucratic shape, its seeming lack of democratic accountability and its strong focus on economic austerity (e.g. its handling of the Eurozone crisis in Greece, Italy and Spain). Additionally, the so called “refugee crisis” of 2015 revealed double standards. While openly criticizing authoritarianization in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia, and Venezuela, the demolition of democracy in Turkey after the 16 July 2016 coup d’état was only moderately criticized, in order not to endanger the EU-Turkey refugee deal of 18 March 2016.[2] These developments question whether the EU democracy consensus still exists, and whether the Union is able and willing to defend and promote democracy when security or economy interests are at stake.

Second, the three main EU DP strategies (top-down, indirect, security before democracy) lack effectiveness and need a substantial overhaul. The EU’s top-down strategy frequently implies cooperation with corrupt governments which have limited capacity, willingness or room to maneuver in order to implement democracy and rule of law reforms. While international aid donors favor “going local” in aid giving, the EU is not well prepared to deal directly with pro-democracy actors which might drive political reform processes. Although it seeks to achieve the opposite, because of the challenge of harmonizing the interests of three EU institutions (Commission, Council, Parliament) and 28 member states, the EU is losing its grip on the outcomes of reform in non-democratic partner countries.[3]

The indirect approach to DP does not efficiently advance democratization either. The indirect approach is favored because it is perceived as being less politicized than the direct approach and circumvents direct interference in the domestic political affairs of a partner country. However, the long-term effects of socio-economic development on democracy are too moderate and fainthearted to substantially advance democratic institution building and to support pro-democracy actors in non-democracies. Even in the potential candidate countries in the Western Balkans, to give an example, indirect EU DP does not yield the intended result of rising democratic quality.[4] On the other hand, a direct approach to DP requires that the EU interferes more openly and directly in domestic state affairs, for example through the support of political-party building or the establishment of free media. Such a strategy would hardly be justifiable either inside or outside the EU.

Prioritizing security and stabilization over institution building negatively affects the highly sought-after outcome of socio-economic development. Security and stability are promoted at the expense of institution-building; but without effective institutions and capable governments, sustainable socio-economic development cannot be achieved. Hence, a lack of good governance also negatively affects socio-economic development, as can be observed, for example, in the EU’s African partner countries (see van Hüllen and Leininger in this report) and also in the post-soviet space (see Richter in this report).

Third, the EU is not ready (or is unwilling?) to respond meaningfully to political developments in partner countries, neither to democratic setbacks nor to pro-democratic windows of opportunity. If partner countries do not comply with the Union’s membership or political conditions, but severely violate human rights, the EU, rarely if ever, punishes such behavior through the reduction or total withdrawal of aid.[5] A case in point is Tunisia under then President Ben Ali. The country became a major beneficiary of EU funds despite its grim human rights record because it liberalized its market along EU lines and co-operated with the security services of some EU member states in the fight against terrorism.[6] But also when chances for democratization are good, the EU rarely changes its neighborhood approach. The 2011/2012 Arab spring and the reluctant European responses to the popular uprisings are a case in point (see van Hüllen in this report).

Fourth, EU DP is at odds with regional powers’ countervailing EU DP policies, for example Russia in the former Soviet space, China in Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa or Saudi Arabia in Northern Africa. These new players in economic and development cooperation make offers without tying them to political conditions. At present, findings on how these activities are affecting the impact of EU and US DP are inconclusive.[7]

Considering that under US-President Trump, the credibility of the US as a model democracy (promoter) has sunk to a low point (see Poppe in this report), it is questionable whether the US administration still is (and will continue to be) a reliable partner in global DP and whether the EU and the US can jointly exert sufficient leverage on authoritarian incumbents.


To deal with these challenges, the EU needs to intensify its efforts to coordinate democracy promotion with and among its members as well as with other regional and international organizations. Coordination of conditions and sanctions efficiently increases compliance of partner countries with EU conditions. The EU should make more open use of its normative power and proactively take the lead in the development and practice of global DP.

The EU should complement its favored top-down approach to DP more consequently with a better-funded bottom-up approach. A substantial strengthening of the bottom-up instruments of EIDHR and EED would support civil society activism and prevent further shrinking of the public space. For alternative recipients inside the civil society, EU DP should become less technocratic, and the EU should strive to increase its DP assistance outreach beyond the usual recipients of DP. The EU should also develop quicker reaction mechanisms to human rights violations and democratic setbacks in order to make its DP instruments more efficient and to increase its credibility as a global norm entrepreneur in the name of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Finally, the EU should practice what it preaches: focus on fundamental basics of democratic rule and accountability, and take this seriously, both in DP towards partner countries and in its integration policies towards the member states. To increase the likelihood of stabilization and socio-economic development, the EU should more directly invest in and foster democratic institution-building, inside and outside its borders.

[1]     Sonja Grimm/Okka Lou Mathis 2015: Stability First, Development Second, Democracy Third: The European Union’s Policy towards Post-Conflict Western Balkans 1991–2010, in: Europe-Asia Studies, 67: 6, 916–947.

[2]     European Commission, Press Release, 19 March 2016, www.europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-963_de.htm.

[3]     Sonja Grimm 2015: European Democracy Promotion in Crisis: Conflicts of Objectives, Neglected External– Domestic Interactions and the Authoritarian Backlash, in: Global Policy, 6: 1, 73–82.

[4]     Sonja Grimm/Okka Lou Mathis 2018: Democratization via Aid? The European Union’s Democracy Promotion in the Western Balkans 1994–2010, in: European Union Politics, 19: 1, 163–184.

[5]     Bernhard Reinsberg 2015: Foreign Aid Responses to Political Liberalization, in: World Development, 75: 1, 46–61.

[6]     Raffaella A. Sarto 2016: Normative Empire Europe: The European Union, its Borderlands, and the ‘Arab Spring’, in: Journal of Common Market Studies, 54: 2, 215–232.

[7]     Sonja Grimm 2015: European Democracy Promotion in Crisis: Conflicts of Objectives, Neglected External– Domestic Interactions and the Authoritarian Backlash, in: Global Policy, 6: 1, 73–82.

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