10. July 2019 | EDP Wire | Vera van Hüllen

Negotiating democracy with authoritarian regimes. EU democracy promotion in North Africa

This EDP Wire contribution briefly summarizes the seventh and last article “Negotiating democracy with authoritarian regimes. EU democracy promotion in North Africa” of the recent Democratization special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion. Issues, parameters and consequences“, edited by EDP network members Annika E. Poppe, Julia Leininger and Jonas Wolff. With the help of the generous support of the Leibniz Association, the entire special issue “The negotiation of democracy promotion: Issues, parameters and consequences” is available online as open access. The summary was prepared by Niklas Markert.

In order to understand the dynamics of international cooperation on democracy promotion with authoritarian regimes, this article looks into the processes and results of negotiations on democracy (promotion) between the European Union (EU) and two of its North African neighbours (Morocco, Tunisia) in the decade leading up to the Arab uprisings. From a comparative perspective, van Hüllen analyses official documents issued on the occasion of their respective association council meetings in 2000-2010 that touched upon both the normative foundations and the practicalities (policy, resources, and implementation) of democracy promotion. Association councils are the highest decision-making body for intergovernmental cooperation under the bilateral Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements (EMAA), concluded with Morocco and Tunisia in the 1990s.

Therefore, the paper seeks to answer the outlining question:

  • If, how, and to what effect have the EU and its Mediterranean partners, Morocco and Tunisia, negotiated issues related to democracy promotion?

EU democracy promotion negotiations with Morocco and Tunisia in comparative perspective

Van Hüllen finds, on the one hand, that there are obvious differences between the EU’s exchanges with the two countries regarding both the level of conflict over problem definitions and the “smoothness” of negotiations on the joint implementation of the EU’s instruments for democracy promotion. On the other hand, there are striking similarities between EU-Moroccan and EU-Tunisian exchanges regarding both the immediate results and the overall dynamics of (non-) negotiations that vary systematically between the different issues addressed. The specific pattern of similarities and differences across countries and issues has important implications for the overall quality of democracy promotion negotiations with authoritarian regimes with regard to (1) the depth and dynamic of the process, (2) the relevance of its results (scope of output and outcome/impact), and (3) the substantive effect of the process of negotiations on these results.

The analysis finds that the quality of promotion negotiations was all in all low, as partners did not (visibly) engage in meaningful exchanges. The EU’s democracy promotion negotiations with both countries built on a superficial harmony on their normative premises, left more (Tunisia) or less (Morocco) open conflicts on problem definitions unresolved, and relied on a logic of bargaining to sooner (Morocco) or later (Tunisia) reach limited agreements on the implementation of specific measures only. Partners did not discuss their respective understandings of abstract norms nor did they resolve (open or underlying) conflicts over their visions for democratization. This lack of substantive dialogue undermined the quality of the agreements the partners reached on the joint implementation of specific measures. While interactions and negotiations are clearly constitutive of the implementation of the EU’s democracy promotion agenda centred on partnership-based instruments, this does not necessarily mean that the process of negotiations really makes a difference for the agreements reached. The comparison of the EU’s negotiations with Morocco and Tunisia highlights that differences in the tone and dynamic of interactions mattered only for the timing, but not for the content of agreements. Indeed, agreements turned out to be compromises, involving substantive concessions by the EU as well as bargaining tactics such as issue-linkage. For example, the EU-Moroccan agreement on the creation of the human rights subcommittee clearly hinged upon the EU making concessions to tacitly accommodate the Moroccan position on the treatment of individual cases. While the negotiation of agreements clearly matters for the practice of democracy promotion in the sense of (jointly) implementing the EU’s instruments, the diverging dynamics of negotiations with Morocco and Tunisia seems to have shaped the timing, but not the substance of these agreements. Still, adopting the lens of international negotiations for empirically investigating democracy promotion negotiations has highlighted the lack of substantive co-ownership beyond an agreement on cooperation. These findings confirm the overall sceptical view on the EU as a promoter of democracy, especially in its dealings with authoritarian regimes, found in the broader literature on international democracy promotion and authoritarianism.

On a positive note, the EU was able to set an attractive incentive – but only for cooperation, not domestic change. Rewarding “good” cooperation in the absence of tangible progress in democratization, the EU’s practice of positive conditionality was once more inconsistent with its own policy, further undermining its credibility as a “normative power” and promising little effectiveness in bringing about normative change. Association council meetings served two purposes with regard to the practice of democracy promotion: to evaluate the ongoing practice of democracy assistance and political dialogue, becoming an issue of praise or criticism by the EU especially; and to facilitate agreements on engaging in and intensifying cooperation, in particular with regard to the creation of dedicated human rights subcommittees and developing the idea of an advanced status. Beyond this, negotiations and agreements had little to no discernible influence back on the EU’s broader democracy promotion policy or on the political regimes in its partner countries. Van Hüllen emphasizes that, in fact, the EU’s premise of “shared” values as a precondition for cooperation means that partners cannot agree to disagree on normative premises. Instead, they are forced into accepting a “façade” consensus that prevents open contestation and meaningful exchanges.

More generally, the findings highlight the dilemma of international democracy promotion in cooperation with authoritarian regimes, lending further substance to the charge that partnership-based international democracy promotion efforts are counterproductive as they ultimately help stabilize authoritarian regimes. Through democracy promotion negotiations, authoritarian regimes can secure material resources and political support, making international cooperation part of their domestic “survival strategies.” This highlights the importance of looking more carefully into the quality of the process and results of negotiating democracy (promotion). Ultimately, the findings suggest that formal intergovernmental interactions are simply not an adequate forum for substantive dialogue and communicative action. This makes it all the more urgent for both practitioners and researchers to develop a clear idea of what constitutes “success” and who the “winners” are of such negotiations.

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