The European Union must provide compelling economic incentives for Arab elites to pursue genuine democratic reform or risk undermining the transitions underway in the region, according to a new analysis. A flexible, politically autonomous funding instrument – a European Endowment for Democracy – would help ensure democracy assistance is consistently and effectively delivered, advocates suggest.
But foreign assistance must also help new regimes address the socio-economic grievances behind the Arab spring if they are to avoid the Russian scenario of discrediting democracy by association with instability and insecurity.
The EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, recently published a policy statement calling for Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the South Mediterranean, linking the €4 billion in aid for the southern Mediterranean, due to be allocated between 2011-13, to tangible improvements in judicial reform, human rights and combating corruption, while providing more support to civil society and small enterprise.
“Partners who move faster on political and economic reforms should be able to count on greater support from the EU,” said Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso. Funding must be “incentive-based” to encourage democratization, he insisted.
But the European Commission consistently ignored “strict” criteria on good governance, says a new report from Open Europe, allowing the demonstrably corrupt regimes in Egypt and Tunisia to receive considerable assistance, despite violating democracy and anti-corruption tests for direct aid funding.
“The recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria have shown that the EU’s prioritization of stability over democracy has been ill-judged,” the report concludes.
Between 1995 and 2013, the EU allocated €13.3 billion to governments in North Africa and the Middle East, purportedly to promote political and economic reforms.
The protests sweeping the region “are a rebuke to the EU’s preference for dealing with autocratic elites,” said Open Europe analyst Vincenzo Scarpetta.
“For years, the EU provided direct funding to the corrupt and now ousted Egyptian and Tunisian regimes,” he said. “Moving forward, Europe must establish a far stronger link between reforms on the ground and funding, with particular focus on boosting trade in the region.”
The region’s pro-democracy uprisings present a strategic opportunity for the EU to reverse its support for the authoritarian status quo and prioritize democracy promotion, observers suggest.
“The ‘D’ word [for democracy] had virtually disappeared from the lexicon of the EU in its dealings with the Arab world,” according to Michael Emerson, an analyst with the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies.
“Now it is the demand of the peoples of almost all Arab states, including two post-revolutionary regimes in the making,” he said. “And elsewhere in the Arab world the leaderships are being forced to make moves in the direction of democracy.”
If the EU can find €800 billion ($14.5 trillion) to stabilize its own economies, it should be able to provide assistance to Arab reformers, says a leading democracy advocate.
“We need to reinforce the reformers from Libya to Syria to Yemen, or they will lose their revolutions,” said Edward McMillan-Scott, the European Parliament’s vice-president responsible for Democracy and Human Rights.
“The neighborhood of Europe, east and south, is unstable, and the only way of making it stable is by assuring democracy,” he insists.
Many European democracy advocates are supporting a Polish initiative to establish an autonomous assistance foundation, modeled on the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, which would provide a flexible funding instrument insulated from the diplomatic, security and other constraints that have distorted existing EU aid programs.
Previous initiatives to establish a European NED – “enabling civil society, with government (EU) support, to do what government bureaucracies cannot do” – fell victim to opposition from the German stiftungen, or party-based foundations, which believe the model undermines their raison d’être and, consequently, their German federal funding.
The organizing role and emergence of genuine labor unions in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, confirms that the Arab spring has been motivated by demands for dignity as well as democracy, by socio-economic grievances as well as political platforms, by unmet human needs as well as the denial of basic rights.
But even in the event of successful transitions, newly emerging democracies face the risk of a Russian scenario, discrediting democracy for a generation and empowering a new cohort of authoritarians, if they lapse into economic crisis or prove unable to deliver tangible improvements in the quality of life.
While the democratic surge “has been local and authentic,” argues Volker Perthes, “there is no guarantee of a successful political transition: democratically elected governments will have to address the same social and economic problems that contributed to the old regimes’ fall – not least the need to create jobs and opportunities for the young.”
The largely aspirational Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity’ aims to encourage business links and labor mobility, he notes. But the plan needs to be made more concrete with a “pact for labor and skills” that incentivizes Arab states that opt for democratic reform.