Supporting democratic transitions requires customized, country-specific approaches which empower local political and civil society actors, says a new review of European Union democratization strategies. The review stresses partnership and incentive-based approaches, the importance of the socio-economic dimension to maintain sustainable transition, and calls on the European Commission to establish a platform or network on democratic transformation issues.
Transition poses challenges which vary widely from one country to another. The process can be peaceful or crisis-driven; it involves uncertainty, risk and sometimes even threats to domestic or regional stability.
Experience shows that transitions can fail. Such failure can cause high political, social and economic costs to societies. A successful transition process means consolidating reforms and making them sustainable in the long-term, in an atmosphere of stability and confidence. In some cases, there will also be a need to prevent conflict while promoting and managing peaceful change.
The EU has considerable experience of supporting democratic transitions, both internally, in its neighborhood and around the world. The EU’s enlargement policy, in particular, has proven to be a powerful tool to foster societal transformation. Countries that have already acceded to the EU, in particular those who joined in 2004 and in 2007, and those on the road to join have undergone impressive changes through accession-driven democratic and economic reforms.
The close inter-linkage of peace, stability, democracy, and prosperity has come to the forefront also in other frameworks, including the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), development cooperation and EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).
Mechanisms should be introduced to ensure that the voices of civil society and stakeholders are effectively heard in reform processes. For example, in the aftermath of uprisings resulting from widespread social dissatisfaction in the Arab Spring countries, a Civil Society Facility was created to help strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations both in the Eastern and Southern Neighborhood to promote the needed reforms and increase public accountability in their countries.
In order to further enhance knowledge-sharing and development capacities, the Commission should set up a broader platform or network on democratic transformation issues. Twinning between public institutions of donors and partner countries could be another tool of improving access to knowledge. Full benefit should also be drawn from the European Transition Compendium which compiles the transition experience of EU Member States.
As a result of economic and political uncertainties, transition often brings about a short-term deterioration in growth and employment, as well as in public and external accounts. Where this results in increasing unemployment and poverty in particular, it may erode and put at risk the legitimacy of the democratization process and result in increased emigration and brain drain. In the longer term, reforms need to be able to meet citizens’ expectations for decent jobs, economic opportunities and social justice.
Even if, in general, the long-term objectives of the new leaders of these countries were similar, the priorities, sequencing and pace of the reforms differed widely. Some countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia) quickly introduced radical reforms to create conditions for an economic recovery (the so-called “shock therapy”), despite its significant negative impacts in the short term, such as output drop, unemployment and recession.
Other countries (such as Hungary and Slovenia) took a more “gradualist” approach by implementing step-by-step macro-economic, structural and institutional reforms, avoiding thus abrupt changes in economic output, employment and welfare. This allowed time for national enterprises and economic operators to adapt to the new conditions of an open market economy.
Responding to partner societies’ needs
To secure a peaceful and successful transition, the specific reform process of each country should respond to people’s needs, defined by the country itself. While key needs and challenges in transition countries vary considerably, they very often include: national reconciliation and building a national consensus on fundamental issues; establishing well-functioning democratic institutions and processes; avoiding an unsustainable decline in incomes and employment and restoring or maintaining macroeconomic stability; promoting long-term socio-economic development and inclusion, with decent jobs, economic opportunities, basic social services, including quality healthcare, education, and social justice; establishing a business-friendly environment, (re)defining property rights and the role of the private sector, and reviewing the functioning of the market; and where necessary, restoring security, justice and the rule of law.
As situations vary widely, there is no uniform prescription for a successful transition process or EU response.
In the area of democratic governance, typical examples of areas where such quick wins could be possible include freedom of expression and credible elections (see the example of Tunisia, a representative and legitimate constituent assembly and the adoption of a new constitution through participatory processes.
In the short run, democratic transition may weaken economic activity, employment rates and macroeconomic stability. It is crucial that measures are taken and projects implemented that can help usher in fast improvements in income generation, social safety nets and basic service delivery, and can guard against unsustainable poverty increases.
Applying incentives, constraints and conditionalities
While incentives, constraints and conditionalities cannot be the main driver of reforms, they can support the process.
Incentive-based approaches under the EU enlargement policy have produced positive results, for instance in the Western Balkans. Progress on the EU accession path is linked to concrete steps in the reform agenda.
The ENP also follows a so-called “more for more” principle. Countries which go further and faster with specific, measurable democratic reforms, will receive greater support from the EU. To reflect this new incentive-based approach, two umbrella programmers were set up to offer additional “more-for-more” resources: Support for Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth (SPRING) for the southern neighborhood (see the example of Tunisia) and Eastern Partnership Integration and Cooperation Program (EaPIC) for the Eastern Neighborhood.
Experience from the EU enlargement policy shows that it is important to create an enabling environment (legal framework and rules on funding, inclusion in political consultation procedures) that allows civil society in the country to develop in a sustainable manner.
In supporting transition processes the EU should explore triangular cooperation and other options for cooperating with developing countries that are also emerging as providers of development cooperation and have recent experience with democratic transition.
The EU already has a range of useful policies and tools available to support transition countries worldwide as they embark on the path to democracy, which it has successfully developed and deployed, especially but not only in its immediate neighbours. The EU can play a key role, in particular, by helping to create an enabling environment for some of the crucial elements of successful democratic and economic transformations, such as for various democratic actors, enterprise, investments, trade and social protection.
While experience shows that transition processes should, first and foremost, be owned by the state and its citizens, experience also shows that the EU does have valuable expertise to offer, adapted of course to the needs and wishes of partner countries anywhere in the world, as part of a wider EU package of political, economic or other support.