Why does the EU not learn how to improve its democracy support practices?


by Christian Achrainer & Michelle Pace, Roskilde University (RUC)

The EU has aimed to support democratization in Arab countries for decades, yet the region is still one of the most authoritarian in the world. What is most striking is that the EU has apparently not learnt from its past ineffective democracy support (DS) attempts but continuously reproduces DS malpractices. To help us understand non-learning in that context, and in policy-making more generally, in our recent JCMS article, we conceptualize EU DS as practices performed by a community of insiders who act within a complex constellation on communities of practice (CoPs). The article provides an explanation for why the EU is not able to improve its DS practices, and it allows us to critically reflect on the way how the industry works and constantly (re)produces malpractices. This can help us rethink EU DS and identify ways to overcome this gridlock, and it brings practice-theoretical debates on (non)learning forward.

Learning and the CoP Approach

The article primarily draws from the CoP approach and is thus situated within the practice turn in International Relations (IR). The CoP approach offers a practice-theoretical perspective on learning and non-learning in groups, assuming that learning is rather a communal social endeavour instead of an individual mental process. CoPs are learning communities, which, as Adler defines them, consist of “like-minded groups of practitioners who are informally as well as contextually bound by a shared interest in learning and applying a common practice.”

We argue that only a very restricted form of learning takes place within CoPs: members learn the CoP’s (non-reflexive) background knowledge and learn how to perform practices accordingly. They do not, however, critically reflect on background knowledge, and once this knowledge becomes internalized, CoP members perform practices as a matter of routine and largely unconsciously. Thus, they do not learn reflexivity nor introspection: that is, how to be open to reconsider and revise background knowledge and how to improve the practices they perform. Instead, they constantly reproduce the same practices, no matter whether these are suitable to reach a desired goal or not.

EU DS and the Constellation of CoPs

In our article, we build on this theoretical approach and conceptualize EU DS as practices performed by a community of insiders within a complex and multi-layered constellation of CoPs.

As shown in Figure 1 above, the insiders (CoP 1) stand at the centre of this constellation, and they comprise three sub-CoPs: deciders (CoP 1.1), supporters in the EU (CoP 1.2), and local supporters (CoP 1.3). All individuals who have ultimate decision-making power regarding EU DS within EU institutions are members of CoP 1.1, deciding on the overall strategy, budgetary issues, instruments and measures, and so on. The deciders closely work together with supporters in Europe (CoP 1.2) and in Arab states (CoP 1.3), such as large and well-connected implementation agencies and NGOs, or influential Think Tanks and other experts. These supporters provide the deciders with information, and they implement DS projects financed by the deciders. Members of CoP 1 constantly engage with each other, and the background knowledge on which they base their practices largely converges. They are entangled and co-dependent, because they can only jointly run the industry of DS, from which they all benefit.

Yet, the insiders do not perform their practices in a vacuum but within a complex environment. At least three groupings of outsiders perform practices which also impact democratization in the Arab World as well as (non-)learning amongst the insiders and the subsequent reproduction of their malpractices. Outsiders contesting DS malpractices (grouping 2) are all those actors in Europe (CoP 2.1) or in Arab states (CoP 2.2) who call for an alternative, more inclusive, bottom-up EU DS approach which empowers local democratization practitioners. They could help to turn malpractices into good practices by bringing in fresh ideas and insights, and by contesting the dominant background knowledge and established practices of CoP 1. Yet, they lack influence and are kept out of CoP 1 by powerful gatekeepers.

Outsiders contesting EU DS as such (grouping 3) are all those actors who are, in general, against democratization in the Arab World and contest EU DS practices on this basis. The grouping comprises actors in Europe, such as right-wing populists or anti-feminist movements (CoP 3.1), at the local level, such as the military, the monarchy, fundamentalist religious actors, or a corrupt business elite (CoP 3.2), and international actors, such as leaders of other autocratic states (CoP 3.3). These CoPs can, for example, produce counter-narratives or support non-democratic forces, contest the legitimacy of EU DS practices, and they complicate good practices and learning.

Finally, grouping (4) comprises actors involved in cooperation between the EU and Arab countries in fields such as energy (CoP 4.1), migration (CoP 4.2), security (CoP 4.3), and trade (CoP 4.4). While EU practices in these fields often significantly influence DS, the EU largely treats them as disentangled policy areas. CoPs of grouping 4 and CoP 1 hardly coordinate their practices, which they each perform based on different background knowledge. In consequence, CoPs of grouping 4 frequently perform practices contradicting EU DS efforts, and the EU’s cooperation with Arab countries often rather entrenches authoritarian structures by propping up repressive regimes.

Application of the Constellation Model and the Way Forward

In our JCMS article, we illustrate this – admittedly complex – constellation model by explaining non-learning in the context of EU DS in Egypt in the period 2011 until 2017. This is an interesting case, because EU deciders had enthusiastically declared to critically reflect on their cooperation practices with Egypt after the 2011 Revolution, but have then, after the military coup in 2013, gradually returned to the pre-2011 practices, indicating the incapability to truly reflect on the insiders’ background knowledge to improve practices.

The case study provided in the article also exemplifies that the constellation model can serve as a general conceptual framework for empirical research, including categories of actors conceptualized as CoPs and groupings of CoPs, and, importantly, that it must be regarded as a flexible framework. Which CoPs exist in the EU’s DS in a specific country is an empirical question, and the framework can be adjusted to study particular aspects of EU DS. When studying EU DS and EU practices performed in other policy areas, especially CoP 1 and the CoPs of grouping 4 will be relevant. To investigate the impact of actors who prefer maintaining authoritarian structures, a focus on CoP 1 and grouping 3 seems more appropriate. And so on. Empirical studies will not necessarily have to apply the entire constellation, but it can and should be adjusted.

Therefore, we hope that our article inspires others to apply the model in in-depth empirical case studies (which do not need to be restricted to the Arab world!), developing it further. Moreover, we hope to kick-start increased conceptual thinking on how to use practice approaches and especially the CoP approach when studying EU DS and (non-)learning in policy-making groups, because this in essence is our main objective: to provide a sound conceptual framework to better understand (non-)learning in EU DS.

Christian Achrainer is a PostDoc researcher at Roskilde University, where he is involved in the Horizon Europe project SHAPEDEM-EU. His research focuses on democracy, authoritarianism and human rights in the Arab world (esp. in Egypt) as well as on German and EU foreign affairs.



Michelle Pace is Professor in Global Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark. A political scientist by training, her research focuses on the intersection between European/Middle East/Critical Migration/Democratization and Conflict Studies.