Democracy doesn’t flow from the barrel of a gun, but through respecting the will of the people. Chris Patten delivered this verdict in 2003, at the moment when the "democracy-promotion" agenda was about to be plunged into a geopolitical abyss by the United States-led invasion of Iraq. It proved a prescient challenge to the dominant way that the agenda had come to be pursued.
Patten, a former British government minister and the governor of Hong Kong, was at the time the European Union's commissioner for external relations. He went on to call on western leaders to abandon expediency as a foreign policy ("propping up pro-western strongmen for fear that what might replace them would be substantially worse"), and to practice democracy-promotion by making actions match rhetoric.
The message went unheeded in Europe as elsewhere. Europe continued for the rest of the decade to support autocratic leaders in its southern neighbourhood, to the detriment of democracy and of local human rights-activists working to bring about change in their societies.
Thus, when the Arab uprisings began in late 2010 and early 2011, this explosion of "people power" owed nothing to international support. This was more than just a wake-up call to the European Union – it put the union on the wrong side of history. Throughout 2011, as the uprisings evolved, international actors rushed to catch up by offering a swathe of proposals to support the emerging Arab civil society. Such belated efforts to prove that these actors are now genuinely listening to local demands and backing local agents of change are inevitably shadowed by what came before.
Can Europe now fully learn the lessons of the last decade about the genuine way that democracy is promoted?
A releasing agent
An indication of how Europe might try came in December 2011 when European Union foreign ministers – with the encouragement of the Polish presidency of the union, then in the last weeks of its six-month term – discussed plans to establish a European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Such a body, if funded at even modest levels appropriate to its ambitions (up to around €30 million a year), could provide vital support for those engaged in civic activism. This could become part of a flexible strategy to foster democratic change without the stifling restrictions connected to "normal" EU assistance.
But how will this endowment add value to existing funding instruments at a time of economic upheaval? This has been the proper focus of debates among EU member-states on the issue so far. Most experts recognise that potential partners in need of support, but which don’t have the resources to jump through the administrative hoops associated with current EU programmes, will welcome the possibilities of a more flexible approach. A fresh mandate for the endowment would also make it compatible with existing instruments, in particular the need to preserve funding for core human-rights work under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).
The EED concept is not new to Brussels, but the increased level of discussion reflects the fact that, in the wake the Arab uprisings, democratisation has undergone a swift rehabilitation among EU policy-makers. It must be recognised, however, that participants in the transition from authoritarian rule in north Africa and elsewhere in the Arab region have good reason to be wary of outside intervention in all forms, and wish themselves to set the terms of engagement. The endowment will thus need to make room for a range of civil-society actors – many of them little understood by EU delegations in-country, let alone in Brussels to take the lead in creating the form and agenda of EU assistance in this delicate area. In short, EU support must not come at the cost of local legitimacy.
A readiness to allow initiatives to come from the ground up, and offering a permanent, open cycle of support – rather than issuing calls for proposals cooked up by the European commission bureaucracy – would be a first crucial step in reversing established EU practices.
Who would benefit from the European Endowment for Democracy? Both past and current relevant experience – from Poland's Solidarity movement to the activist-bloggers of Tahrir Square – suggests that the most significant voices for change come from outside the dominant political parties. So initially, the endowment could make itself available to a variety of non-governmental actors unable to benefit under the criteria of the EIDHR.
The recipients could range from those with democracy aspirations in a different gear to national agendas (often these might be leading, but unregistered, NGOs), who might be awarded fellowships/placements in Brussels or member-states; media workers, and members of the diaspora with an explicit aim of improving participatory democracy in their country of origin; and adherents of political parties or think-tanks who support nascent democratic structures. Any support to political parties must, however, avoid ideological allegiances (real or imagined) and be non-discriminatory, supporting the overall growth of democratic systems and democratic culture rather than "backing winners".
A bottom-up strategy
The EED, if it is to be effective, flexible and impartial in its decision-making and delivery, will need to function as a nimble and light non-governmental entity, at some distance from Europe's institutions yet with the member-states' buy-in. The board will need to establish ground-rules to manage the higher levels of risk, and each proposal will require assessment based on individual contextual merit rather than a pre-defined set of global criteria. There will also need to be programme officers with detailed regional knowledge who can invest in relationships and take necessary risks, and account for them to an executive committee. They will thus have greater leeway than grants officers working in delegations under the EU diplomatic banner.
A strategic board composed of former officials as well as civil-society representatives and member-state human-rights officials would provide fresh thinking and oversight. A rotating structure would help ensure greater transparency of decision-making, shared ownership, and the avoidance of conflicts of interest or capture of funding by "donor darlings" (well-performing favourites of multiple donors).
The endowment also offers an opportunity to test a bottom-up funding strategy. In the context of Europe's current financial troubles, cost is a major feature of any current debate among the member-states. Yet where the endowment is concerned, it is the targeting and flexibility of funds rather than their modest amounts (€20-€30 million from multiple donors, including member-states). In any case, actors are much better able to absorb and convert smaller grants into real activities than large sums. When coupled with procedures light enough not to distract resource- and time-constrained beneficiaries from their qualitative goals, this will equate to effective and efficient use of funds.
The broader idea that should guide the European Endowment for Democracy is to understand the risks being taken by those struggling to make a difference in closed countries or grappling with fast-moving transitions, and to seek to empower them in their efforts to foster change. The European Union should neither further clip their wings nor dictate a direction of flight but allow them – partners and agencies alike – the freedom to take the initiative. As Chris Patten suggested in 2003, if we truly believe that democracy is a universal aspiration then we need to treat it like one. This means having the confidence to give it space to develop and to focus resources that let it grow from the ground up.