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The European Union and democracy-building

Ingrid Wetterqvist Raul Cordenillo Halfdan L Ottosen Susanne Lindahl Therese Arnewing
10 February 2009

The European Union matters. The EU is one of the most influential global economic and political entities. It is, for example, the largest provider of international development assistance in the world. Its policies and actions also have a key impact on democracy-building both within and beyond its member-states.

The authors are collaborators on the project on "Democracy and Development: global consultations on the EU's role in democracy building" (2008-10) at International IDEA

Ingrid Wetterqvist is director of the project; Raul Cordenillo is programme officer (Asian and Pacific region); Halfdan L Ottosen is programme officer (Africa region); Susanne Lindahl is assistant programme officer; Therese Arnewing is research assistant

This article is a contribution to an international debate on democracy-support co-hosted by International IDEA and openDemocracy

Also published:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

There are vivid and constant discussions within the EU on democracy and human-rights issues, in a range of policy areas: for example, foreign and security policy, neighbourhood policy and development cooperation. EU policy and actions in fields such as trade, agriculture and migration can also affect democracy-building elsewhere in the world (sometimes with negative or unintentional effects). There is no exaggeration in saying that the EU is an indispensable player in democracy-building. 

A dynamic agenda

But the context in which the EU plays this role is changing. A new global architecture is emerging, with new actors and new relations; there is a new United States administration, perhaps with a different approach to external relations; there is in the global community an increased emphasis on partnerships and a growing understanding of each other's perspectives.

In the awakening after the height of the so-called "war on terror" the costs of prioritising short-term security and "hard power" over human rights and long-term stability seem to have become apparent to European actors. They begin to remember that there are other ways to think and behave - that there is a European way that is different from other models; a "soft-power" approach, more low-key and less visible - but still to be counted upon.

But what exactly is this European way? It is part of the beauty of the European Union that it encapsulates diversity within unity - it includes twenty-seven different applications of democratic governance. It is a smorgasbord of inspiration from which the EU's partners can pick and choose ideas, lessons and possible models. This can be seen as a weakness as well as an asset: for the corollary is that Europe today has no common or agreed narrative, as a whole and in the particular area of democracy-building.

A global initiative 

International IDEA in August 2008 sought to address this situation by launching an initiative sponsored by Sweden, to provide new input to internal European Union debates on the union as an actor in democracy-building. The purpose of "Democracy and Development: global consultations on the EU's role in democracy building" is to engage the union's counterparts in other regions in consultations and initiate a dialogue on how they perceive the EU as a partner and actor in this regard.

What works and what doesn't work in the partnership? How can it be deepened? These questions are the focus of planned collaborations with the African Union (representing African states), with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for southeast Asia, with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for the south Asia, with the Organisation of American States (OAS) for Latin America and with the League of Arab States for the Arab world.

The input from the other regional organisations will be analysed together with a mapping study of the EU's intentions, in the form of policy and key documents on democracy and democracy-building. By exploring how these intentions are received and perceived in the partner regions, and what the actual effects of the EU's policies on democracy-building are, will surely highlight where there may be scope for improvement in the European Union's work.

The project focuses on perceptions and perspectives. The reason is that perceptions do not just matter in themselves, but also constitute reality; they are what people act and base their decisions and choices upon. What is intended to be communicated or achieved can be understood quite differently on the receiving end. To try to understand perceptions and perspectives from the other side is to engage in an essential learning process that can in turn inspire  rethinking, revision and better results.

For information on the European Union's approach to democracy-support, see:

* European Commission, European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR)

* European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (proposal, June 2006)

* EU Human Rights guidelines

* European Commission checklist for root causes of conflict

* Barcelona Declaration and Euro-Mediterranean partnership

* European Partnership for Democracy

* European Union Democracy Observatory International IDEA has recruited a team to facilitate and carry out this project. By July 2009 there will be a set of policy options for the EU, to be presented by IDEA to the presidency of the European Union. Most of the consultations are planned to take place during March 2009. But already, the project team has been through an analysis phase with commissioned papers from regional authors providing some initial analysis and patterns.

The challenges to democratisation are global but they evolve differently in different contexts. This demanding setting enhances the need for internal coherence for the European Union to get a sense of direction. This comes as no surprise: the coherence issue seems always to rise in evaluations of and discussions about the EU and its future.

The EU institutions are indeed solid, with the advantages and disadvantages that this entails. The policy areas are coherent and logical within themselves, but work less well side by side. There is potential, as yet unexploited, to form a more dynamic and connective agenda. In the course of International IDEA's analysis we have brought together representatives from different EU institutions, who often work in close proximity to each other in Brussels yet who rarely meet even where they face common issues and concerns. This lack of internal exchanges and mutual-learning processes creates unnecessary obstacles to the efficient development of EU policy. The EU lacks a coherent message and consistent application in the area of democracy-building, both at the macro-level and across the regions and in different situations. The EU's partners perceive this as (among other things) double-standards.

The EU needs a strong narrative to have the confidence and arguments to stand up for its message and values - to ensure that the sometimes grandiose words of policy documents are indeed transformed into activities that help for the partner regions. In most cases the good intentions are there, but these are not enough: the message must reach the other side, and find its echo, for the real work to begin.

In defence of the European Union, the priorities, methods and timespans in which the different policy-areas work differ. It is a real challenge to find a gearbox between, for example, the time-pressed security issues and the long-term development-cooperation activities

An EU agenda that creates synergies and adds value by linking all policy areas is likely both to better respond to the partners' wishes and needs and to prove more successful. The conclusion from the International IDEA preliminary analysis is that the time is ripe for a discussion across the union's pillars and institutions. There is clear potential for a programme of work that draws on the best characteristics of all different policy areas and instruments - and acquires real substance through listening to the EU's partners around the world.

A way forward

The gains will be large both for the EU and its partners. Another clear finding emerging from the International IDEA project is that there is demand for a distinct European Union voice and for the sharing of European experiences. Both elements are important: the quality of voice needs to be respectful and avoid lecturing, the sharing needs to reach toward a true partnership with advantages for all involved.

The potential is there. The EU may be criticised for incoherence, but is viewed by many of our dialogue partners as a more reliable, credible and useful cooperation partner that is in for the long-term. 

It also has a precious asset in being seen as an attractive model that exerts influence in a singular, non-threatening way. The EU is viewed by our dialogue partners in most global regions as a successful combination of social stability, democratic pluralism and economic dynamics. Other regions struggle to achieve a model that Europe - with all its current problems - embodies and seeks to share.

The promotion approach which has been predominant in United States policy on democracy-building has proved not to work; it damages more than it helps. Instead a softer and listening outlook anchored in the sharing of experience is the way to go. The democracy-building agenda of the European Union must build on real partnerships where we together strive to improve democratic structures and culture in order to advance core principles of political equity.

This is a way forward that can motivate all involved to participate in the search for mutually beneficial solutions. The European Union now has a window of opportunity to pursue it. International IDEA will contribute to this process.

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