Has the EU successfully promoted democracy in its neighbourhood?

There is a long-running debate in the European Union (EU) over where should the final borders be set and by default, there is controversy over neighbours. The question is which countries are considered potential entrants and which ones permanent neighbours. All the neighbouring countries present a fair lack of democratic governance and it is in the EU’s interest to promote democracy and stability in the neighbourhood. It proved in the past that it could do so, but can it successfully promote democracy in its neighbourhood now? To answer this question, this essay will categorise as neighbours the countries which have no accession prospections. Neither the Balkans nor Turkey are considered neighbouring countries. Russia is deliberately excluded, because of the EU special relationship program. Thus, the following countries fell into the neighbourhood category: Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. This essay will argue that the European Union has not yet successfully promoted democracy in its neighbourhood. It will analyse EU policies towards the neighbourhood: firstly, the European Neighbourhood Policy, followed by the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Eastern Partnership. Subsequently, it will present a series of case studies and examples. It will analyse the Ukrainian case study and will briefly explain the situation in the Eastern states. Then, it will analyse Egypt and the particular case of the 2006 Palestinian election. Finally, this essay will conclude that the EU fails to promote democracy in the neighbourhood due to structural imbalances which do not allow it to be successful.

The most important and ambitious policy towards the neighbourhood is the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which was launched in 2003. In 2004, the EU would have had borders with Russia and Ukraine and the possibility of Turkey joining the EU was also real at that moment; it would have expanded borders even further until Syria and Iraq. Hence, the ENP was a policydesigned to achieve stability, security and prosperity in the neighbourhood as a way to minimise risks and instability across flowing across EU’s border’.There was a high degree of self-interest on the part of the European Union: Romano Prodi, the ex-President of the Commission talked of ‘creating a ring of friends’. The ENP wanted to avoid exclusionary feelings within the new neighbours but ironically, it defined de facto permanent non-members, which did not please all the participants. Therefore, the EU offered deeper political and economic integration to these states, for example through Association Agreements, in exchange of democratic reforms and moves towards a market economy. As several EU officials expressed, the long-term idea was to share ‘everything but institutions’ with neighbouring countries. When it was launched, the ENP had the potential for being an attractive policy framework; the structure used was practically the same than for the 2004 enlargement processes. This is considered the most successful EU foreign policy ever, and it was thought that the ENP could achieve similar results. Unfortunately, the ENP contains structural deficiencies which prevent its success and its ability to promote democracy in its neighbourhood. Firstly, it lacks strategic finality. The objectives proposed are vague and the final objectives of the policies are not clearly stated; it affects its credibility in the neighbourhood. Secondly, it uses an inappropriate ‘one-fits-all’ approach: Eastern and Mediterranean states are fundamentally different, for example when it comes to their accession prospects. Thirdly, the EU does not use strong conditionality incentives. Not offering the prospect of membership, for instance, weakens enormously EU’s attractiveness. Fourthly, the EU focus much more on stability than democracy. The neighbouring countries feel that as long as they maintain stability, they will not be bothered on political matters. Overall, the ENP has failed to fulfil its main objectives. Richard Whitman and Stefan Wolff even argue that the ENP has failed in minimising risks of instability in the neighbourhood.

The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) and the Eastern Partnership (EaP) are the two other relevant policies. The EMP was a partnership between the EU and the Mediterranean states signed in Barcelona in 1995. It ‘aimed at the promotion of stability, economic integration and cultural dialogue across the two sides of the Mediterranean’. The idea was to turn the Mediterranean into a shared geopolitical, strategic and economic space, based on three pillars: political and security cooperation, economic and financial partnership, and the enhancement of social and cultural ties. Once again, the EU did not mention democracy promotion as a principal objective and like the ENP, the EMP had also serious institutional imbalances. Firstly, the Mediterranean states which signed the Partnership, as mentioned by Hollis, ‘were not well placed to form a common market among themselves.’ Secondly, the EU did not remove tariffs on important goods for the Mediterranean states, neither did it allowed free movements of people. Finally, the EMP was reformulated in 2008 into the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). The idea was to ‘bring together all the Mediterranean coastal states to revitalise and strengthen cooperation across the Mediterranean’. There are two arguments on why neither the EMP nor the UfM successfully promoted democracy in the Mediterranean basin. First, the EU thinks that the promotion of economic development will eventually lead to democratisation. This is a problematic thinking: it relies on a strong liberal assumption which has yet to be proven. Moreover, dictatorships can retain much power even with a liberal economy. Second, the EU has always been reluctant to push for democracy in the Mediterranean. Long before the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’, EU officials felt that if they pushed for regime changes in the area, their likely replacements could threaten European stability in its borders; it indeed proved right.

The Eastern Partnership was launched in 2009. It looked for a more specialised approach towards the Eastern neighbourhood and it targeted Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The European Union understood that post-Soviet states which could still be under the sphere of influence of Russia needed a special policy. The EU had three major interests in creating the EaP. First, it allows it to deal with the special cases of Ukraine and Moldova, which have clearly stated their accession aspirations. Secondly, it needs good relations with the Caucasian republics which are important providers of EU energy, especially Azerbaijan. Thirdly, as Michalski contends, the EU has ‘an interest in encouraging a strengthening of the ties among EaP countries themselves both to deal with the EU as a group and to improve stability and economic and social development in the region’. The EaP, like the two previous policies, fells short in democratising the Eastern state and it has faced criticisms from the neighbouring and participating countries. Firstly, the participant countries have different visions of the EaP: Armenia and Azerbaijan, which do not want to join the EU are satisfied with its proposals, while Ukraine and Moldova are not. Secondly, it is a policy which focuses mainly on the governments and does not focus enough on democratic groups which already exist in the neighbouring countries. Thirdly, and this is characteristic to Eastern states, the EaP offers materially no perspectives for conflicts resolutions. Except Belarus, all the countries are entrenched in conflicts. Some are frozen, like the Transnitrian question in Moldova and some are quite recent, like the low intensity warfare in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Unfortunately then, as Nielsen and Vilson write, ‘all the partner countries remain fragile, undemocratic, economically underperforming, torn by frozen conflicts or all four at once’.

This essay’s first case study is Ukraine, which is the most populous country in the Eastern Neighbourhood. Even though it is more democratic than most of the participants in the ENP and the Eastern Partnership, Ukraine scores poorly in democracy and transparency rankings and there is still a strong economic oligarchy. Together with Moldova and Georgia, Ukraine has clearly stated its aspirations to join the EU. However, the EU is reluctant to accord membership perspectives. In fact, neither the ENP nor the Eastern Partnership offer such possibility. Nonetheless, Ukrainian officials considered the ENP as a springboard for membership. Ukraine is definitely one of the most active participants in the ENP, in spite of some significant domestic resistance. Even though the political elite has declared support for Ukraine’s integration with the EU, it has contributed little to advancing it beyond declarations. On the other hand, the EU has not yet successfully promoted democracy in Ukraine. However, it has made positive steps. It offers credible rewards in order to bring about domestic reforms, even though it does not want to use the accession incentive. The EU knows the political and economic class accept reforms as long as they fit their interests. Hence, it should pressure for these reforms to happen. However, these positive steps are somehow overshadowed by EU decisions itself. For instance, the EU postponed ratification of the Association Agreement signed in 2012 and Ukrainian officials hinted it might be due to some European countries not wanting closer links to Ukraine; it was signed, the Netherlands decided in a referendum in 2016 not to ratify it.  The lack of a unified position inside the EU puts a brake to any policy targeting the neighbourhood. Moreover, there is yet another reason why Europe does not successfully promote democracy in Ukraine. The European Union has mainly commercial interests with Ukraine; it exports more to Ukraine than it imports. It has signed free trade, financial and modernisation agreements relying again on the liberal assumption that liberalisation will bring democracy. So far, the reality is that while commercial agreements are signed, democracy has yet to come.

The remaining states of the Eastern Partnership look no brighter than Ukraine. Moldova is in a similar situation than Ukraine; Belarus is still a dictatorship and the EU does not want to give legitimacy to its executive power by interacting with him openly; Azerbaijan has severe democratic deficiencies, but it is also the largest EU trading partner in the region which means that little pressure is put over its government; Armenia is historically closer to Russia; finally, Georgia is an instable republic with two de facto independent regions. Overall, as mentioned previously, the Caucasian states are all entrenched in conflicts. Armenia and Azerbaijan fight over Nagorno-Karabakh. Possibly, if the EU was a strong actor capable of resolving these conflicts, it could gain significant leverage to promote democracy in these states. Today, pressure remains insignificant and little real progress has been achieved towards democratisation and respect for human rights.

It is important to note two main differences between the Eastern states and the Mediterranean states. Firstly, the EU has had diplomatic relations with Mediterranean countries long before that with the Eastern states. Therefore, Arab regimes have been indirectly legitimised by the EU for years. Secondly, since 2011 the Arab countries have experimented the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, a series of protests and revolutions which have brought significant regime changes in several countries and to which European policies have had to adapt. The most interesting case study in the Mediterranean basin is Egypt. As Ukraine with the Eastern neighbourhood, Egypt is the most populated country in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, it historically exerts an influence on the rest of Arab countries. Egypt was governed since 1981 by Hosni Mubarak, a dictator with whom the EU worked closely for the sake of security and stability. The EU never pressured the Egyptian government even though there were strong evidences of serious human rights abuses. The EU even withdrew funds allocated to civil society organisations over accusations of the Egyptian government that the money could be used for terrorist purposes. On the other hand, the EU heavily funded the dictatorial government in its anti-terrorism plans. Therefore, it is fair to argue that the EU has not promoted democracy in Egypt. In fact, democratisation came from the Egyptian population itself, with the ‘Arab Spring’. The EU indeed welcomed the first free elections, but was not really pleased with the victory of Mr. Mursi, from the Muslim Brotherhood. When he was overthrown in a bloody coup d’état by the Army, putting an end to the ephemeral democracy, the EU protested slightly but nonetheless legitimised General Al-Sisi as the new Chief of State by continuing the diplomatic relations. Another interesting cases study is the 2006 Palestinian elections won by Hamas. The elections were supervised by the EU and acknowledged to be fair and free; nevertheless, the EU froze help funds to Palestine, because Hamas was outlawed as a terrorist organisation. This gave a huge blow to the EU credibility in Palestine and in the Arab world because the action was interpreted by Palestinian and Arab observers as a sign of the EU ignoring the democratic expression of the Palestinian people. The contradiction was far too evident: the EU did not accept the legitimate victory of Hamas in a democratic election but it financially supported the Egyptian dictatorship.

This essay contends that the EU genuinely believes in democracy. The EU itself is an organisation composed of 28 functioning democracies and it has proven in the past that it can successfully export its example of democratic governance: it did so with the 2004 enlargement, but also with Portugal, Greece and Spain previously. However, despite a reasonable amount of good will and successful previous examples, the EU has failed in successfully promoting democracy in its neighbourhood so far. There are four main reasons. Firstly, the policies targeting the neighbourhood are inefficient. The ENP, the EMP and the EaP are structurally defective policies with important flaws. Most importantly, none of them makes democracy a main objective. It could be argued that even though the policies do not mention democracy promotion, they offer the necessary set of political and economic policies to democratise the neighbourhood. However, this assumes that democracy follows economic liberalisation, an assumption yet to be proven. Secondly, these policies are fundamentally state-oriented. The state is fundamental in transitions to democracy but historical precedents show that non-state actors are generally the ones which push for democratisation. A famous example is the Polish trade Union Solidarność in Communist Poland. By leaving these actors out of their structures, the EU does not bring real democratisation prospects to the neighbouring states. Thirdly, the EU fails in promoting democracy because it lacks a true common policy towards its neighbours. The ENP, the EMP and the EaP are attempts to harmonise such differences but they do not erase it. It is obvious that Mediterranean states have a stronger interest in its Southern neighbours while the European Eastern states have an interest in looking eastward. Until the EU do not tackle this issue, foreign policy measures will be weak, and so will be democracy promotion. Fourthly, the EU does not successfully promote democracy simply because it is subject to geopolitics contradictions. It knows that in some states where there democratic culture is lacking, it is extremely costly and long to promote a stable democracy: transitions to democracy are costly and painful, both for the country experimenting it and for the EU. Hence, a dictatorial state with a strongman can be a better short-term solution and it is not in the EU interest to remove an ‘ally’ which guarantees stability and security in its neighbourhood.

To summarise, the EU has developed several policies to deal with its neighbouring countries, but none of them has successfully promoted democracy. The ENP is the most ambitious one: it deals both with the Mediterranean and the Eastern states. It aims to bring stability and prosperity to the neighbouring states but it has important flaws which impede its success. Firstly, an inappropriate one-fits-all approach; secondly, a lack of strategic finality and thirdly, a lack of differentiation. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Eastern Partnership tackle the differentiation problem, but they also present defects. The EU has low credibility in the Mediterranean because it has always maintained friendly relations with the dictatorships. Moreover, the EU wrongly assumes that economic liberalisation will bring democracy. With respect to the Eastern States, it aims to create a special framework for Moldova and Ukraine and to secure a stable zone between Russia and the EU. The case studies given by this essay have looked at concrete examples. On the Eastern part, Ukraine, which is an active participant in EU programs, has nonetheless failed consistently in consolidating a stable democracy. On the Mediterranean, the EU maintained a friendly relationship with the Egyptian dictator Mubarak, generously funding his government but on the other hand it cut funding to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas won a democratic election. Finally, this essay presented four reasons to sustain its claims that the EU fails to promote democracy. Firstly, the policies targeting the neighbourhood are structurally inefficient. Secondly, they focus too much on governments, leaving aside important non-state actors. Thirdly, the EU lacks a real common vision when it comes to foreign policy in the neighbourhood. Fourthly and lastly, having relations with dictatorships sometimes fits the EU geopolitical interests, when these guarantee stability and security in the neighbourhood, offering no incentive to change. In conclusion, the European Union has failed to promoted democracy in its neighbourhood so far due to structural mistakes that can nonetheless be improved in the future. Promoting democracy is a long term process. The EU might be unsuccessful in the short term, but this does not mean it cannot revert this path in the future.

Note: To make it easier for the reader, I have not included footnotes nor the bibliography. However, this can be found for further consultation on the original paper, which is uploaded and available in the website academia.edu:



© Mario Cuenda García



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