Can Europe Make It?

The EU must not abandon African democracy as it battles populism at home

The EU is facing an existential crisis and a year of tumultuous elections in member states, but now more than ever, the bloc needs to prove that collective foreign policy can make a difference.

Bram Dijkstra
20 January 2017

The logo of the European Union (EU) training mission EUTM Mali pictured in Bamako, Mali, 06 April 2016. PAimages/Michael Kappeler. All rights reserved.

As nationalism, populism and Kremlin interference threaten the twin bastions of the post-World War 2 democratic order, Europe and America, it would be easy for EU officials to forget about Africa.

Yet a combination of conflict, repression and underdevelopment in parts of the continent continue to drive people from their homes daily, contributing to the stream of migrants and refugees that have so challenged EU policy makers. Just this week, reports emerged that Russia plans to back an anti-government Libyan general advancing on Tripoli, potentially adding to that flow.

These circumstances are often presided over by authoritarian regimes, providing ample evidence of what can happen when democracy and human rights are not promoted and protected.

In 2017, with an inward-looking Trump presidency looming and nationalists gearing up for elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, authoritarian leaders in Africa are looking forward to a new era of impunity.

This month Burundi’s President Nkurunziza, engrossed in a conflict over his mandate in which hundreds have been killed and over 300,000 have fled the country, hinted at a possible fourth term and shut down the country’s oldest human rights organization. Zambia’s president is openly flirting with a third term. A deal to resolve the political crisis in the volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) remains uncertain.

The EU’s own security and economic interests have inhibited its readiness to speak out against abuses.

These unconstitutional term extensions reflect a wider trend. Since the 1990s, most African countries have held regular elections, adopted progressive constitutions, and installed multi-party political systems. But peaceful handovers of power remain rare. In ‘winner-takes-all’ systems, where power is heavily concentrated in the office of the president, political elites silence dissent and suppress resistance when faced with losing an election.

The EU has an impressive array of tools to encourage, criticize or coerce authorities into complying with popular demands for democracy. On voting day itself, the EU deploys Election Observation Missions (EOMs) with the aim to deter cheating, boost voter confidence and promote electoral norms and standards.

Throughout the electoral cycle it provides financial and technical support to key state administrative, judicial and security functions. It funds and assists civil society support programs. Under the Cotonou Agreement - the framework for EU relations with virtually all African states - the EU is meant to hold regular political dialogue with third countries on human rights and democracy. In case of non-compliance with the agreement, it can take targeted measures against individual human rights abusers. It can suspend all or part of its substantial development aid.

But the EU has not applied these tools strategically. It has focused on internal quandaries and questions over how to best secure its borders to the detriment of its foreign policy. The Union’s own security and economic interests have inhibited its readiness to speak out against abuses.

That unwillingness to challenge and confront has allowed the EU to be used by autocratic governments. While EOMs can be effective in strengthening electoral democracy and inform EU democracy assistance, their very presence can be manipulated by host governments to obtain domestic and international legitimacy. In countries where the most basic conditions for free and fair elections are not met, the EU should decline invitations to observe the voting process.

The EU’s preoccupation with itself means that often, it is only responding to rights abuses in Africa when conflicts erupt or at times of crisis. Yet when leaders are facing an existential threat they are least likely to cave to EU pressure. The EU must watch Africa more closely, applying pressure on serial rights abusers during times of relative stability.

A tougher approach may also create an opportunity to strengthen or establish meaningful political dialogue with African governments. Clearly communicating Brussels red lines and speaking out publicly and consistently when they are being crossed would strengthen not only the EU’s leverage in Africa, but its credibility at home. And it might just stop refugee crises before they happen.

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