The European Union recently established a European Endowment for Democracy with the aim of supporting pro-democracy actors quickly, flexibly, and audaciously, write Solveig Richter and Julia Leininger.* But the endowment’s mode of operation and orientation remain subject to dispute, highlighting a wide gap wishful thinking and reality.
It is doubtful that the endowment can secure stable, long-term financing; actor-centred democracy promotion in complex situations of radical change, is highly risky; and it remains unclear how the EED is to complement existing EU instruments with similar tasks. Yet the endowment could stimulate “a new dynamism in EU democracy promotion,” they conclude, if it secures Member States’ financial and political backing, avoids duplication and develops a long-term strategy with other democracy promoters.
On 25 June 2012 an EU working group agreed on the Statutes for a European Endowment for Democracy, designed to foster and encourage deep and sustainable democracy in countries in transition and in societies struggling for democratization. The initiators’ expectations are high: although the EED is to be autonomous from the EU institutions, it is to ensure that the EU plays a more active role in democracy promotion and so compensate for serious shortcomings – particularly the bureaucratic slowness – of such existing programs as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).
Polish initiative and political realignment of the EU
The creation of the EED can be understood only in the context of the Polish Council Presidency and the radical political changes occurring in the Arab world in the first half of 2011. In February 2011 Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski put forward his proposal for a democracy fund, an idea that had already been hotly debated in Brussels for some years. Poland quite consciously wanted to serve as an example of a new form of EU democracy promotion, since the success of its own democratization would have been inconceivable without any external support. Its democratization had been actively promoted, for example, by the USA’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organization repeatedly held up as a model during the debate on the EED.
The debate on the EED is taking place in the context of the current realignment of the EU’s foreign, development and neighborhood policies. Under the “more-for-more” approach formulated in 2011, countries in the European Neighborhood are to receive more support if they undertake further democratic reforms. In June 2012 the Council also adopted a Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, with the aim of increasing the relevance of human rights and civil society in all the EU’s policy areas and instruments.
Consequently, the Arab Spring has again moved the goal of active democracy pro-motion higher up the EU’s agenda and led to a revival of an almost forgotten debate on appropriate instruments.
However, this consensus on the establishment of the EED can hardly hide the fact that the EED’s mode of operation and orientation continue to be disputed among the EU’s institutions and Member States. Some of the latter are also ambivalent in their attitude towards the Endowment: although they want to control it, they do not intend to give it much financial or political support. The result is a mismatch between the sometimes high hopes pinned on the EED by its initiators and what is actually feasible.
An unclear situation such as this may, on the one hand, give rise to complex decision-making structures that are more likely to preclude flexibility. Certain modalities for financing the Endowment and integrating it into the EU budget may similarly tend to weaken the EED on the input side. Such problems would, on the other hand, reduce the EED’s impact and increase the risks in the target country already associated with the more flexible form of democracy promotion that is sought.
EED structure: flexibility versus inclusive decision-making
The EED will be able to act flexibly only if two requirements are satisfied: first, the control and decision-making procedures should be as lean as possible, since the Statutes give a wide range of actors the right to be involved. Second, the Member States should make voluntary contributions to ensure that the EED does not become dependent on the EU budget and is not encumbered with a large bureaucracy.
Extensive political control
Although the EED is [designed] to be autonomous from the EU, the Union’s institutions and Member States are claiming the right to have a say in the formulation of its strategy. This ambivalence has characterized the debate on the EED from the outset: despite being in principle in favor of external democracy promotion in third countries, only a few of the EU’s Member States, led by Poland and Sweden, have made an unambiguous declaration of support for the Endowment. The critics have above all failed to see any need for a more offensive form of democracy promotion and are concerned that the Endowment should complement other EU instruments.
As it is not yet known how large the EED’s initial budget will be, a funding shortfall cannot be ruled out. For its organizational structure the EU Commission has indicated that it will provide EUR 6 million of financial support over four years. These resources will probably come from the budget of the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), because the EED’s engagement will be geographically limited to the Neighborhood for the time being.
The financing of the EED’s operational activities, on the other hand, has yet to be clarified. At present, the Statutes set out no more than a loose framework for the EED’s engagement: they specify the time at which it is to become involved.
Accordingly, the EED’s work is to be directed at countries not yet undergoing or still at a very early stage of the transition to democracy. They also define the target group as pro-democracy actors in favor of a multi-party system, social movements, civil-society organisations, emerging leaders, independent media and journalists, including bloggers and social media activists, non-govern-mental organisations (NGOs), even if they are in exile, foundations and educational institutions. These organisations and individuals must be committed to democratic values, international human rights standards and peaceful engagement.
Pro-democracy actors – a difficult target group
The EU and its Member States broadly welcome the EED’s basic idea of supporting pro-democracy forces and non-govern-mental groups with government money. Nonetheless, major differences of opinion came to light in the EED working group on how far the endowment might intervene in a target country’s political conflict and how unambiguously it might take sides. As things stand, there is no explicit reference, for example, to assisting political parties – nor is it ruled out.
The EED faces an old problem associated with international democracy promotion: identifying actors who conscientiously and resolutely call for the relaxation of authoritarian rule and advocate democratization is difficult and time-consuming. For an institution with offices only in Brussels it is possible only to a degree. In this respect, the EED will have to rely on the knowledge of the EU delegations. But they are specialized in cooperation with governments and have only a limited ability to assess groupings behind the official political scenes.
Alternatively, the EED must rely on experienced implementing organisations, such as political foundations and NGOs.. Thanks to their many years of cooperation with civil-society groups, they are familiar with local political and social circumstances. Even if it succeeds in involving reliable democracy promoters, assessing the credibility of political actors in the country will continue to be major challenge for the EED. The extent to which a veil of democratic rhetoric conceals appropriate values and attitudes does not, as a rule, become evident until democratization processes are under way. If, then, the EED’s primary objective is to become involved at the earliest possible stage of a period of radical change, some of the forces it helps are bound to turn out to be undemocratic at a later stage.
Yet it is in precisely this respect that the EED may contribute added value: unlike the EU’s official representatives (e.g. delegations) and instruments, the EED will be able, at times of radical change, to maintain contact with actors whose political orientation is still undecided or still changing, such as religious groups and political parties, provided that, in principle at least, they are committed to the above criteria.
Risks inherent in democracy promotion
Democracy promotion is exposed to further risks in an autocratic regime and in the early phases of transition. First, strong external support for opposition forces may be counterproductive in an authoritarian context: such groups are either discredited in the eyes of the public or punished by the authoritarian regime for their activities. The more offensively external actors have supported human rights or pro-democracy activists in recent years, the more severely governments have clamped down on their freedom of action. How serious the risk is, particularly in the EU’s Neighborhood, is evident from the example of Russia, where, according to recent draft legislation, NGOs receiving money from abroad must count on being subjected to closer surveillance.
Second, when an authoritarian regime opens its doors to new political and social forces, a period of uncertain transition often follows while political power structures change fundamentally. Old elites have to forgo economic and political privileges, usually to the benefit of new actors. This change can quickly lead to an escalation of violence if opposition forces set themselves against ruling elites, as the protests in Egypt in 2011 showed. The EED’s goal of supporting only peaceful organisations and groups may be very quickly thwarted by the political dynamic in such situations.
Third, past instances of external support for democratization processes show that there is room for serious doubt about the wisdom of focusing solely on pro-democracy actors. If the development of a “sustainable democracy” is to be promoted, it will be essential to establish accountable and representative government institutions. Although the new ENP strategy is aimed at such structural changes, the intention is that the EED should be autonomous from the EU, and careful dovetailing with the latter will therefore be appropriate, but is not guaranteed.
The EU has long promoted democracy and human rights under its foreign, development and neighborhood policies, a special role being played by the EIDHR and the Civil Society Facility. It is crucial, therefore, for a substantive distinction to be made between the EED and those two instruments if it is to complement their activities in a target country appropriately.
Within the EIDHR framework, for example, 90 per cent of the resources allocated to small projects support the work of non-governmental groups and individuals. Although the EIDHR focuses primarily on the protection of human rights and to only a limited extent on democratization, the danger of duplication is particularly serious in this case.
Fragmentation of funding
It is highly likely that the diversification of funding sources at European level will result in further fragmentation of democracy promotion at governmental and non-governmental level and obstruct the emergence of a coherent approach.
First, the distribution of new resources may cause substantive duplication. Al-though the EUR 6 million promised by the EU Commission to cover administrative costs will not, in the short term, put the EED in a position to compete with the EIDHR (whose budget for 2011–2013 totals some EUR 472.4 million) or the programs assisted by the ENPI (a total of about EUR 12 billion for 2007–2013).
Second, rivalry between the traditional, non-governmental democracy promoters and the EED could break out if the EED tried to obtain EU funding. From the out-set the German political foundations, for example, have voiced the criticism that its many years of work, partly funded by the EU, with reform forces would be duplicated by the EED. Although it is highly likely that the same promoters will be engaged by the EED as implementing organisations, the EED would then take on a distinct gatekeeper function in the matter of EU resources – and this despite the fact that it is to act autonomously from the EU and will not be directly accountable to the Council and Parliament for its decisions.
Recommendations: shifting from wishful thinking to reality
The EED will not be able to start work until the first half of 2013 at the earliest. Only if it is able to take political action flexibly and the continuation of its activities in a target country in the long term is guaranteed by other EU institutions or Member States can it represent a genuine added value for EU democracy promotion. For this the following aspects are of relevance:
Flexibility of procedures: If bureaucratic and cumbersome decision-making processes are to be avoided, it would be advisable, first, for the Board of Governors to exercise restraint in the EED’s operational activities and for excessively formalized procedures to be avoided. Second, the allocation of resources should not be guided by the EIDHR’s application procedure: an innovative, alternative form of financing without excessive reporting obligations should instead be chosen.
Support rather than control: The attitude of many of the Member States has hitherto been molded by a desire to control the EED’s decision-making procedures rather than guide them proactively. The risk then, however, is that the EED will be tied to financing from the EU budget and so becoming more bureaucratized. Member States should therefore either be more generous with their voluntary contributions to the EED or not use their voting rights in the Board of Governors. The more financial room for manoeuvre and political backing the EED receives, the more flexibly and audaciously it will actually be able to act.
Contextual sensitivity: The vague description of the Endowment’s tasks in the Statutes, which make no reference to practical measures, also creates opportunities: compared to the EIHDR and the Civil Society Facility, the EED will be able to add value if it cooperates closely with experienced non-governmental democracy promoters, such as private or political foundations, in the target country and joins with them in identifying (on the demand rather than the supply side) shortcomings in the assistance provided.
The EED should also make a virtue of necessity by keeping its criteria for target groups as broad as possible. As the risk of misplaced pro-motion can hardly be avoided, the EED can distinguish itself from other EU instruments by consciously and pro-actively involving groups whose future development cannot be predicted.
Country level complementarity: Annual meetings and agreements in Brussels will not be enough on their own to preclude rivalry and duplication of efforts. Only the Executive Director will be able to establish constant working contacts with all the EU institutions through his or her permanent post. To be complementary, however, the EED must above all develop appropriate strategies at target-country level in cooperation with other democracy promoters.
Long-term promotion: Although small and short-term contributions will enable the EED to establish initial peer-to-peer contacts and to stimulate change in neighboring countries, the pluralisation of the political scene is no more than the first step in efforts to promote the development of a sustainable democracy. They may have no effect at all or even counterproductive effects if they are not backed by a clear political strategy or of there is no continuity.
The EED’s establishment should not result in resources in the EU being allocated to actor-cent red measures at the expense of a more structurally and institutionally aligned policy.
Reform of the EIDHR: It remains to be seen what relationship develops between the EED and the EIDHR and whether they will decide on an appropriate division of labour. In the worst case, EU democracy promotion may wane in the complex institutional mix. If this is to be prevented, not only should compliance with the aforementioned guidelines on the shaping of the EED be ensured, but also the continuation of the planned reform of the EIDHR.
After all, its shortcomings will not be eliminated simply by the establishment of a new institution. In the best case, the EED, acting coherently with the EIDHR, will actually stimulate a new dynamism in EU democracy promotion.
This is a slightly edited extract from a report by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik).
*Dr. Solveig Richter is a Senior Associate in SWP’s EU External Relations Division. Dr. Julia Leininger is a senior researcher at the German Development Institute/ August 2012 Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), Department of Governance, Statehood, Security.
Read the full report here.