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


Brexit: lessons for the future

Britain has decided to leave. I am sad, slightly shocked and worried. This is a huge blow to European integration, probably the biggest setback in 60 years of European project. I would like to write about the causes of this result, but also its consequences and the lessons we can learn from it.

Let’s be clear: the European Union is a positive project with plenty of benefits, but it is also is an imperfect construction full of mistakes which still needs reform. Among its problems, it faces a democratic deficit and an excessively liberal structure which privileges financial interests over citizens’ concerns. As such, we cannot remain uncritical about this EU; more and more people are asking the correct questions but unfortunately, many are not giving the rights answers. Brexit is probably the worst one so far.

Yes, the EU has its part of responsibility. But do not fool yourself, the results of the referendum have little to do with a rational criticism of the EU and its policies. There are the consequence of two factors which have been visible in the last years. Firstly, the rise of the nationalist, xenophobic and reactionary far-right which disguises its true ideology behind a well-calculated Euroscepticism. Secondly, the passivity of national governments, which have desisted in their defence of EU and even worse, allowed it to be used as a scapegoat to avoid responsibilities for policies taken at home. This is especially true in the UK, paradoxically the less integrated country of the EU. It is undeniable that David Cameron was comfortable with the social anger targeting the EU instead of the British government and that he even encouraged this attitude.

The referendum itself was not a mistake, but there was no need of convoking it. As The Economist writes, “Back in 2013, the public opinion was not clamouring for it”. It was a short-term gamble to silence noisy Eurosceptic backbenchers and to maintain the unity of the Conservative party. It was an irresponsible electoral move thought on party terms, not national. Three years later, the country experiences its worse political instability ever and David Cameron resigns with leaves a disastrous legacy.

The campaign and the results

Then came the campaign. The ‘Remain’ side was poorly led. David Cameron was overconfident in his convincing capacities and he wrongly thought that his February deal with the EU would suffice to convince undecided voters. He is not an Europeist and he was uncomfortable defending a position which was unnatural to him. He campaigned for the EU because he knew that the alternative was worse. In consequence, the arguments were more about the catastrophic consequences of leaving than about the positive effects of remaining. Thus, the ‘Remain’ campaign had absolutely no capacity of illusion: it relied too much on the politics of fear. Jeremy Corbyn was not very active in the ‘Remain’ campaign either, but he is not to blame: the ‘in or out’ debate was nothing but a civil war within the Conservative Party which spread to national and European politics. No wonder that he did not want to be stuck in it. On the other hand, the ‘Leave’ campaign was even worse. It was full of lies and contradictions. The Brexiteers, especially Nigel Farage, dragged the debate into the recurrent topic of immigration, until it became the core of the campaign, eclipsing all other considerations. As Owen Jones wrote, the campaign focused on immigration as if “migrants and people fleeing violence and poverty were the cause of the multiple problems afflicting European society, from the lack of secure jobs and houses to stagnating living standards to public services ravaged by cuts”. Unfortunately, this xenophobic and nationalist campaign won. Traditionally working classes worried about immigration, ended up voting ‘Leave’, proving that nothing had been done to counteract the dominant and false argument on immigration.

The results are worrying in many ways. Look at the politicians who have celebrated the outcome of the referendum: Marine le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, Matteo Savini and so on. It is a victory for scaremongers, bigots and xenophobes. Furthermore, the statistics of the referendum project the image of a truly ‘Broken Britain’ (how ironic…) with four major cleavages. First, an impressive generational one. Second, a cleavage between nations. Third, one between educated and less educated people. Fourth, one between well-off and less well-off people. It would be easy to blame the uneducated poor for this result, but the causes are far more profound. Look for the reasons in the rising inequalities provoked by liberal and austerity policies, which have left many people impoverished, disenchanted with politics and felt abandoned by a political class which does not look for their interests.  

european stars

Europe is crying

The consequences for the UK

The list of consequences is too long for this post, but I would highlight one word: uncertainty. The short-run economic effect will be affected by this completely new situation. Understandably, firms will delay investments and important decisions until the new status of the UK is agreed with the EU. Once the agreement comes into force, firms might fly and relocate elsewhere in Europe. This will likely throw the UK into a recession and hurt employment numbers. The British Union is likely to suffer: Scotland will push for independence and Northern Ireland might push for reunification. Universities are also big losers. EU students wanting to study in the UK will now probably rethink their choice until the uncertainty dissipates: this means less talent and less money will come to the UK. Diversity on campuses will diminish. British students will lose access to the Erasmus program which allows them to study abroad in Europe. Overall and without getting into details, it will become harder for everyone to work or study in the UK until the uncertainty dissipates. The same applies to Britons in the EU. The long-run forecast is more difficult. As EU trade treaties will not apply anymore once it leaves, Britain will have to renegotiate all of them. Eventually, the economy will stabilise and recover, but it will lose attractiveness. Foreign investors, start-ups, young talents and so on see the UK as a fantastic place to invest or set up partly because it is part of the EU. With this door closed, they will look for alternatives in the continent. Many will leave and many more will just not come in the first place.

The relationship between the UK and the EU

Now here comes the crux of the matter. The Treaty on the European Union contemplates exits in its Article 50. The procedure is the following: the UK has to notify the European Council its desire to leave. Then, the UK and the European Council negotiate an ‘exit agreement’. Once it is reached, the European Parliament has to approve it by a qualified majority. Then, ‘The Treaties cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement’. There is a very important point here: the European Council negotiates the new situation with the UK as an outside actor, not a member of the Council anymore. Whatever the final agreement is, the UK is not in a position of strength and stands to lose. If it wants to remain part of the internal market, as many ‘Leave’ supporters argued, it will have to accept European standards, allow free movement of people and contribute to the European budget, like Norway does. The Article 50 is not the only possible outcome; other agreements can be reached. However, if the EU wants to be credible, it must strictly stick to the Treaty provisions. Any concession will undermine its legitimacy, create a dangerous precedent and give wings to Eurosceptic forces around the continent to further disintegrate the union. Sadly, the first divisions are already arising. Several finance Ministers, François Hollande, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schultz have asked the UK to start the procedure as soon as possible, saying it won’t be an amicable divorce. On the other hand, Merkel says there is no need to be nasty on the UK, opening the door for a more favourable agreement. This is dangerous for the whole Union (I will develop the possible outcomes and the relationship-in another post).

The consequences for the EU

They are contradictory. For instance, Brexit could actually be positive. The British conception of the EU as a big economic market has done much harm to European integration. The UK has constantly slowed down European initiatives, filibustered many actions that could have led to a closer union and has an important part of responsibility in the frustration created by this EU. Many pro-European actors will be happy to see such a burden leave. But as I mentioned in the introduction, it is also the biggest setback in European history. For the first time, a member state leaves the European project and menaces to trigger a dangerous domino effect. The Austrian election was already a worrying sign. If Britain reaches a successful deal with the EU, nationalist parties in the EU will probably push for the same, endangering the whole project. Hopefully, this could be the major catharsis the EU needs to reform. Unfortunately, none of the actual national leaders has the European vision to lead a major reform project. A truly and rare European actor is Guy Verhofstadt. Unfortunately, he is in a weak position (he is just an MEP) and he is alone. Some of his policy proposals are right, but I believe the EU has to take a more social turn, not a liberal one.

What the EU must do is to stand up with courage for its core values, to take a battery of measures and to set a grand project for the next years. First, it has to stand up against right-wing nationalism. This means opening borders for refugees, equally redistribute them in European countries and fight the anti-immigration discourse. The measures that could be taken to relaunch the morose European integration include: enhancing transparency, public inversion in transport infrastructures, the end of unnecessary austerity policies, restructuration of the Greek debt, redefinition of the ECB status, dropping the unpopular TTIP negotiations and many more. My idea for a grand project which could reconcile the EU with its disenchanted citizens would be fighting fiscal evasions and tax heavens. It is politically feasible, economically positive and it will show that the EU is effective in tackling today’s world problems and that it works for its citizens.

I will end up on a positive note. It has been said that our generation is disenchanted with the European project. That we take everything for granted and that we do not value what has been achieved. Yet, on the 23rd of June, more than 65% of people aged between 18 and 24 voted ‘Remain’. This does not mean that they agree on everything with the EU, as I do not, but it genuinely acknowledges that the European project is right and that the future of the people of Europe is together. The creation of a truly European youth is succeeding. These voices may have been silenced today, but they will come back stronger. I have no absolutely no doubt that the UK will, as an equal partner, be part of the EU once again in the future. We will welcome them with our arms opened to continue the construction of this outstanding project: the European Union.

© Mario Cuenda García

EU countries are taking an authoritarian turn – and we have to stop it

Since the fall of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc in 1991, the European continent has not experienced any dictatorship, with the exception of Belarus. When the Eastern European countries joined the European Union, many saw this threat disappearing. Indeed, to enter the EU, member states had to commit to democracy and to a certain degree of liberal values and personal liberties. On the other hand, the EU was seen as the enforcer of the new democracies. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries like Russia and Turkey shifted slowly but surely towards authoritarian regimes.

As a result no one expected the rise of authoritarian measures,  which is currently taking place inside the European Union. Some of this measures are happening in Eastern European countries where the relatively ‘new democracies’ are now with conservative and nationalistic governments, which do not embrace European values and impose authoritarian measures nationally. It is indeed one more expression of the East-West cleavage in the EU. Western European countries are also imposing authoritarian measures at home and there are two reasons for this. First, there is fear of terrorism. Facing the threat of massive and indiscriminate attacks, some governments have slowly but surely headed towards authoritarianism, sacrificing liberties over security. Secondly, the economic crisis has increased poverty and made many people worse off. A climate of elite distrust has grown and this has led to social unrest and protest, with some restricting it.

The first warning sign came a couple of years ago, when Viktor Orban became the Prime Minister of Hungary. His years in government have been marked by illiberal measures such as a restrictive media law, and marginalisation of the Roma population, among many others. But as Hungary was only a small country out of the 28 member states, the European Union was not greatly concernced. However, in October 2015, the conservative party Law and Justice won the general election in Poland. In a matter of months, it passed laws that weaken constitutional checks and balances, as well as restrict media freedom. In December, the ministers of Justice of Hungary and Poland manifested their opposition to the legalisation of homosexual marriage in a Council of Ministers of the European Union. Poland and Hungary are giving headaches to the European Institutions and to the member states. Indeed, the EU has already expressed concerns both in public and in private. Some MEPs have suggested a temporal expulsion of Hungary or the suspension of their right to vote in European Affairs. Last month, the Commission decided to put polish democracy under evaluation.

The refugee crisis contributes to these problems. Hungary built a fence this summer and its treatment to refugees has been poor and violent. The new Polish government claims that refugees carry diseases and do not want to welcome them, in spite of the agreement reached by the previous government. But this time, they are not the only countries to act in this way. The Czech Republic voted against the refugee redistribution schema and Denmark has passed a law which allows the government to steal goods of the refugees to pay for their maintenance costs.

The country, which has implemented authoritarian measures due to the terrorist threat, is obviously France. After the 13th of November terrorist attacks, the President François Hollande imposed a State of Emergency. The National Assembly approved it by nearly unanimity, as it was seen as a temporary measure following the attacks; European member states and the French public opinion were supportive to a large extent. Three months later, not only is France still under the State of Emergency, but the Assembly has approved a further enlargement. What are the implications? The executive power has been granted more powers over the judiciary. Demonstration are prohibited; indeed during the COP21 conference in Paris, ecological activists were confined to home arrest. Indiscriminate searches can be carried out in homes without judiciary permission at any moment of the day or the night. A plan of mass vigilance have been approved. Finally, French MPs have voted in favour of removing the nationality to citizens with double nationality having committed a crime against the nation. The State of Emergency threatens civil liberties and France cannot use terrorism as a justification of such liberty cuts. Neither Spain nor the UK implemented such measures after the terrible attacks they suffered in 2003 and 2005 respectively. The Commission is worried, as Jean Quatremer, a journalist for the French newspapers Libération, writes in his blog: if France was not a member the EU and wanted to join it under the State of Emergency, it would not fit the democratic criteria!

Governments restricting protest is the last kind of authoritarian measures I have identified. This is especially visible in Spain, which last year introduced a ‘gag law’ aimed at criminalising social and pacific protest. The ‘gag law’ restrains the right to protest and impose harsh sanctions on whoever breaks it. International newspapers such as Le Monde or The New York Times have denounced it as an intolerable freedom cut in a democratic country. Its editorials have described it as ‘ominous’ and ‘with smells of Franquism’, asking for the Commission ‘to condemn the new law’ and urging Spanish lawmakers to ‘reject the measure’. This paragraph of The New York Time explains best what the ‘Gag law’ is about:

“The law would define public protest by actual persons in front of Parliament as a ‘disturbance of public safety’ punishable by a fine of 30,000 euros. People who join in spontaneous protests near utilities, transportation hubs, nuclear power plants or similar facilities would risk a jaw-dropping fine of €600,000. The “unauthorized use” of images of law enforcement authorities or police – presumably aimed at photojournalists or ordinary citizens with cameras taking pictures of cops or soldiers – would also draw a €30,000 fine, making it hard to document abuses.”

The criminalisation of social protest reached worrying grounds last week. Two puppeteers (yes, you read it right, puppeteers) were arrested and sent to prison, allegedly accused of praising terrorism. In Spain, where the Basque terrorist separatist group ETA killed more than 900 people between the 1970s and 2011, it is strictly forbidden to praise terrorism. Later on it has been proven that the two puppeteers were not praising terrorism; in fact, they were denouncing police manipulation. In their representation they used a banner with the inscription ‘Gora Alka-Eta’, which in Basque means ‘long live Al-QuaETA’, mixing the names of the two terrorist groups and playing with the names. The banner was placed by a policeman near an unconscious protester, precisely to accuse him of terrorist allegiances (how ironic!). Clearly, the banner was part of their representation and they were therefore not praising terrorism. As it was denounced by politicians, journalists and cultural personalities censoring critical fiction is something which happens in dictatorships, not in democracies. Even more worrying, in the last four years more than 1000 persons have been accused of praising terrorism. Some of these accusations were right. However, given the really high number, it is legitimate to ask if unfounded accusations of praising terrorism are not becoming a way of intimidating and criminalising social protest in Spain.

It is undeniable that due to different factors, some European member states have taken authoritarian measures unimagined a couple of years ago. In this post, I have mainly talked of governmental actions, but I believe a much bigger threat lies outside power, mainly in the far-right parties, which are growing in France, Austria, the Nordic countries and have a strong presence in Greece, Germany and some Eastern states. Actually, they already influence national politics by weighting the balance in their direction. More worryingly, their increasing electoral support shows that some people are actually ready to support the implementation of authoritarian measures. This is really scary and it throws us back to the worst years of the last century. A radically democratic solution has to be proposed to oppose the rise of authoritarianism in Europe. Civil society, from social movements to the press, have to keep denouncing and pressing. Citizens should reject authoritarian laws in the streets and in the ballot box. Politicians have to adopt inclusive discourses which illegitimate authoritarian parties and oppose them with more democracy. It has been proven: the best way to weaken authoritarianism is democracy. For, France must end its State of Emergency and Spain’s new parliament has to abolish the ‘gag law’. Finally, the European Institutions have a huge role to play as well. It is not enough to condemn what is happening. European politicians and technocrats should be more visible and offer as well more democracy and transparency. Get closer to the people and make them participate. Otherwise, they will fall down in the arms of undesirable parties and individuals. Clearly, those are not easy times for Europe, nor is the solution easy, but it is time to act against this growing authoritarianism. The first step is denouncing. Then will come the protest, and we well might be in this process soon.

Many thanks to my friend Paula García Domingo and my dad for revising this post!

© Mario Cuenda García