By Clare Castillejo
Democracy and human rights are central to the EU’s identity and a commitment to promoting these values is embedded across its policy framework for external action. However, recent events – notably the Arab uprisings, but also other trends including developments in the Eastern neighbourhood – have revealed some serious disconnects between the EU’s principles and its actions or impact on these issues.
In recognition of these problems, over the last few years the EU has developed a range of new policies aimed at strengthening its external democracy and human rights promotion. This new policy framework, despite being in some ways more a hasty response to events than a well considered reflection on the EU’s potential role in this area, nonetheless provides an opportunity for the EU to raise its game on democracy and human rights promotion. Seizing this opportunity and living up to the EU’s democracy commitments will be an important challenge for the incoming leadership in Brussels.
If the EU is indeed serious about doing better, it must move beyond its traditional approach to human rights and democracy promotion. This has been overly focused on rules, technical blueprints and elite actors; has been hampered by inflexible bureaucratic mechanisms; and has failed to provide effective incentives for reform. Instead it must use its enhanced policy framework as a starting point to develop an approach that is more politically and contextually nuanced, that recognizes that political change processes are complex and domestically driven, and that is based on a realistic vision of the EU’s role in influencing such processes.
Not only must the EU better understand local political contexts and dynamics, it must also tailor its approach to broader changes in the global context for democracy support. These include an increase in hybrid regimes, new forms of citizen activism and shrinking space for civil society, as well as the increased influence of emerging powers and reduced EU leverage in many contexts.
In the coming years the EU will be under pressure to live up to its promises to become a stronger and more effective democracy and rights champion, as well as respond to a wide range of democracy and human rights challenges in its neighbourhood and beyond. It is therefore high time for an enhanced approach that both builds on lessons from the EU’s past experience in this field and is able to respond more effectively to the complex local and international dynamics of political change. Sustained political commitment and high level support within the EU institutions will be critical to driving forward such an approach. It is therefore to be hoped that democracy and human rights will be a priority for the EU’s incoming leadership.