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Does The EU Need a More Pluralist Approach to Democracy Support

November 8, 2013

Last week the European section of the Carnegie Endowment put out a paper by Richard Youngs and Kateryna Pishchikova calling for ‘a more pluralist approach to European democracy support’ it’s quite helpful in making sense of the current state of thinking on democracy support but I have a strong sense that the prescriptions don’t follow from the analysis.

The paper starts by arguing that the EU has approached democracy support indirectly as an offshoot of its theory of integration. Essentially if you are outside the EU you want to get access to its market to get access you need to sign up to its rules, regulations and systems of governance.  If you do this you will end up with something that looks like democracy.   The problem is that particularly since the economic crisis countries outside the EU are less convinced that the EU actually has all the answers.  Further, authoritarian regimes are getting wise to the democracy support toolkit and are seeing the EU as something to be managed.

The nuts and bolts of the EU approach have been about ‘exporting rules and conditions’ in the assumption that if you accept and implement enough you are going to move governance in a positive direction.  But in both the Middle East and the former Soviet space this doesn’t seem to be doing the job.  In the former democrats can’t see what EU rules have to do with democracy.

What is to be done?  The EU needs more coherency across its own programmes and across those of its member states.  It also needs to be willing to be more directly political in its approach.

There also needs to be a broader rethinking that recognizes

  • That there are now multiple scenarios of change – I think that the point here is that the EU thinking is dominated by the Eastern European experience – and the EU needs to be able to recognize and deal with different situations.  A telling point is that the paper uses the term  ‘transition’ at several points even as cites the argument that we should stop thinking in terms of transition.
  • The EU needs better ways of dealing with the range of restrictions on civil society organizations.  Here the paper hedges its bets on one hand arguing that the EU should make its democracy activities more transparent so it is clear that they are not partisan but on the other hand considering whether they can be hidden within larger development packages.
  • The EU should do a better job at recognizing the possibility of different models of democracy  and of working with rising democratic powers such as Brazil and India.

The paper concludes

Democracy support is at a crucial juncture. It could either be reinvented or begin to lose both credibility and traction. Organizations that promote and support democracy face multiple challenges in this environment. But there are also new opportunities for organizations to seize a leadership role in rethinking crucial aspects of democracy support.

The democracy support community has known for a number of years that democracy policies cannot merely continue as before. Yet organizations tend to continue with their short-term, day-to-day business of running projects instead of seeking to coordinate a higher-level and deeper reassessment of how democracy support strategy needs to adapt to stay relevant and useful in a reshaped world order.

The conclusion complains that situation today is one of ‘abundant eclecticism’ and that we need ‘greater pluralism’

This all leaves me a bit puzzled.  I’m persuaded that the EU model isn’t working as effectively as it did in the past.  But if you’ve got ‘abundant eclecticism’ I’m not sure that ‘greater pluralism’ is the answer unless pluralism is somehow going to impose more order on the situation.   I think what’s needed is much greater degree of realism about what can be achieved.  That means focusing efforts on a smaller range of countries that are important to the EU and require a greater concentration of resources.  The chance of the EU doing agile and flexible is zero, so there’s no point pretending that it can.  If we look earlier discussions of similar activities in this sphere the record isn’t good and if states are bad at joined up statecraft the EU is worse.

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