Beyond Effectiveness? Reflections on the EU’s Democracy Promotion


Considering EU democracy promotion as an integral part of EU foreign policy, Evangelos Fanoulis examines the effectiveness of political conditionality in the EU’s advocacy of democratic reforms in developing countries.

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Since its inception in the 1950, the European Union (EU) has tried to spread its democratic principles and values worldwide. These endeavours are broadly known as “EU democracy promotion”.

To a certain extent, such pursuit has been due to a genuine belief that democracy can lead to peace and prosperity for all. From a more pragmatic point of view, the EU institutions believe that democratic governments are more stable politically and therefore readier to get into trading and diplomatic relations. Some scholars have also interpreted the EU’s democracy promotion as indication of guilt for the colonial past of European societies.

Whether the reasons behind EU democracy promotion are pragmatic, idealistic or psychological, the Union has advocated for democratic reforms in developing countries for many years. It does it primarily by imposing political conditions in trade or exchange for development aid.

This means that the EU provides preferential trade agreements and development assistance to regimes that promise to make democratic reforms for the sake of their citizens. In this way, the EU clearly pushes a certain agenda for example, the abolition of death penalty, fair elections, freedom of speech and of the press, the right to protest, in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

One crucial question is whether political conditionality has worked or not. The events of Arab Spring are telling. For example, the EU Commission funded Ben Ali’s regime with the European Neighbourhood Policy instruments in order to secure political stability in Tunisia. However, funds stayed with the country’s elites instead of being spent for the well-being of the Tunisian people. Promised democratic reforms agreed under the title of political conditionality got delayed, unemployment rose and the public uprising against the government followed.

Of course, it is difficult to say what could have happened if the EU had pushed more fiercely and openly for democratisation in Tunisia. Yet, there is a sense that having turned a blind eye for the sake of stability in the region the EU failed in its ambitions abroad.

Tunisia, as with other cases, shows that when country politicians are unwilling to stay firm to the agreed agenda of reforms, democratisation fails (Grugel 2007). For instance, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy criticised Guatemala in 2010 for the potential restoration of the death penalty; she condemned the violent suppression of protesters in Kazakhstan in March 2012; and in January 2013 warned Sri Lanka about maintaining an independent justice system. In all three cases, there were prior commitments by the governments of those countries to promote democracy in the context of their agreements with the Union.

The EU has acted in response where commitments have not been followed.  After the military coup in Fiji in 2006, the EU stopped development funds to the country. But to what extent is this an effective strategy to ensure democratisation? Political conditionality on development aid may eventually deprive people of much needed assistance. I doubt that this scenario can be seen as a success story of EU democracy promotion. At least, not from a normative perspective.

So far, the effectiveness of EU democracy promotion appears pessimistic. Yet, for the EU, both institutions and member-states, democracy promotion remains a policy priority. As I have argued, however, this sometimes fruitless effort is part of who EUropeans are. In an EU of different nations, languages, cultures, and historical experiences, the idea of democracy became a common point of reference. As the EU appears to move from an era of democratic politics to an era of populist politics, let us hope that this common point of reference will endure.

This piece draws on the article The EU’s Democratization Discourse and Questions of European Identification in JCMS Vol. 56 Issue 6.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of  Ideas on Europe, JCMS or UACES.

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Evangelos Fanoulis@EvansFanoulis

Evangelos Fanoulis is Lecturer in international relations at Xi’an Jiaotong- Liverpool University (XJTLU). His main research interests lie within democracy and populism in the EU, Euroscepticism, European security governance, EU-China relations and post-structuralist IR theory.