Why Europe needs to get serious about promoting democracy

European leaders like to claim they care about democracy. But too often, their policies ignore it — damaging Europe’s own interests in the process.

Democracy and the rule of law are necessities, not idealistic luxuries. In fact, Brussels’s ongoing standoff with Hungary and Poland brings the question dangerously close to home. In defense of their increasingly authoritarian domestic practices, Budapest and Warsaw are threatening to veto the European Union’s long-term budget and the post-pandemic recovery package, worth 1.8 trillion euros. Meanwhile, Russia and China have been using their proxies to divide and paralyze the E.U., especially on decisions affecting diplomacy, energy, and technology policy.

It used to be fashionable in European capitals to condemn Washington’s “naive” efforts to export democracy. But it is one thing to recognize the limitations of American-led democracy-promotion efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan, and quite another for the E.U. to completely disregard democracy, human rights and rule of law. From member states such as Poland and Hungary to neighbors such as Turkey, Belarus and Georgia, the bloc has been consistently letting autocrats off the hook.

Europeans ought to understand that countries that lack liberty and accountable governments make bad neighbors. Russia’s destructive interventions in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia — as well as the bloody conflicts in former Yugoslavia — are only the most recent reminders. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, even the apparent stability and predictability of dictatorial regimes are an illusion. Indeed, the Assad regime’s atrocities in Syria led to an unprecedented wave of mass migration in 2015 that nearly tore the E.U. apart.

The state of democracy has deteriorated in 80 countries over the past year, according to Freedom House, and the E.U. itself has not been immune. Hungary’s government has recently stepped up its attacks on dissenters in academia and is now quietly rewriting electoral law to benefit the ruling party. In Poland, the ruling party is intensifying its assault on judicial independence.

The retreat of democracy from Europe’s neighborhood is a boon to E.U. adversaries, above all Russia and China. Yet Brussels has resigned itself to complacency and clumsy realpolitik, often prioritizing shortsighted economic interests epitomized by the infamous Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Russian investment in nuclear energy. Or consider Europe’s embrace of China as a “partner” on climate issues — despite its skyrocketing pollution.

The E.U.’s collective approach offers plenty of carrots but almost no sticks. The European Parliament has repeatedly called for member states to adopt an E.U.-wide Magnitsky Act, giving the bloc new tools to impose sanctions on dictators and kleptocrats — to little avail. But between 2013 and 2017, more than 80 percent of all E.U. development aid was directed to countries that are authoritarian or hybrid regimes. Brussels regularly rolls out the red carpet for dictators, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

Europeans have also failed to seize the opportunity created by cuts to democracy promotion programs in the United States. The European Endowment for Democracy, set up in 2013 as a counterpart to America’s National Endowment for Democracy, continues to operate with a puny annual budget of 19 million euros, which it spends on a diffuse array of programs on women’s political participation, gender identity and sexual orientation, and the arts — ultimately diluting the original purpose of defending democracy, narrowly understood.

Europe fares little better within multilateral institutions. In October, China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan and Uzbekistan were elected — without notable European objections — to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which had already been abandoned by the United States. While Washington can afford to ignore the U.N., Europe, with its lack of serious military power, relies on the credible projection of democratic values to wield global influence.

The current reluctance to actively defend democracy stands in a sharp contrast to the overly optimistic hopes that underpinned the E.U.’s post-1989 enlargements. At that time, Europeans eagerly anticipated post-communist countries’ quick embrace of Western political and legal norms. In 2012, the E.U. facilitated the peaceful transfer of power in Georgia, and in 2014, the E.U. foreign minister brokered the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine following months of mass protests. In recent years, similar success stories have become increasingly rare.

There is a silver lining: Unlike their leaders, the citizens of the EU continue to recognize the importance of democracy promotion. In 2018, 73 percent of Europeans favored stronger involvement by the E.U. in supporting democracy and peace around the world. The incoming Biden administration’s announced “democracy summit” in Washington offers an excellent opportunity to strengthen the transatlantic partnership and to recommit both the United States and Europe to democracy promotion.

The E.U. faces a choice. Either its current drift continues, allowing autocracies in Europe’s neighborhood to flourish, or Brussels gets serious about defending and promoting liberal democracy, human rights and rule of law at home and around the world. Walking the walk requires Europeans to match their verbal support for democracy with resources and determination. With democratic erosion at home and foreign autocrats at the gates, failure to act is not an option.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at AEI.

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