On June 21, the European Partnership for Democracy organised a conference bringing together civil society, government representatives, academics and donors to exchange on how democracy support should be rethought and updated in light of the profound changes in the geopolitical context.
Democracy after Ukraine
The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine represents a wake up call for the democracy support community, showing that democratic institutions and free societies are never to be taken for granted. During her intervention at the conference, the Deputy Head of the Mission of Ukraine to the European Union Iryna Yefremova saluted the openness of the EU in recently granting Ukraine candidate status.
But supporting Ukraine in rebuilding its democracy will not only be about diplomacy. Speakers noted that the EU and its Member States will have to act together to reduce energy dependence on imports from authoritarian regimes, as well as to promote and invest in inclusive, participatory and accountable governance and build on joint efforts to hold Russia accountable for the current crisis.
Dealing with the consequences of the war in Ukraine also means updating domestic and foreign policy objectives. As pointed out by Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, “democracy is a national security issue. It is not a peripheral national interest but something that supports our core national interests to enable safety, security and prosperity”. This includes thinking of democracy as vital for ensuring food, water and energy security.
Pushing to reverse the autocratic trend in elections and beyond
The trend of autocratisation in Europe and elsewhere goes hand in hand with a regression in the integrity of elections. The Hungarian elections are the most recent example with the dominance of state media spreading biased and unbalanced news in order to benefit the ruling party.
Democracy support in autocratising regimes requires a broad approach that goes beyond a single electoral cycle and is able to change the system in a more pro-democratic direction. The points touched upon at the conference highlighted the potential for the EU to seize this moment for a unified movement going back to the origins of the EU as a “community of values”.
The current context for democracy presents plenty of opportunities to respond to these challenges. The Conference on the Future of Europe was the first time citizens united together to come up with recommendations to change the future of Europe. The 49 recommendations included several ambitious proposals for treaty changes to abolish unanimity for certain decision areas such as in Common Foreign and Security Policy. This unprecedented participatory exercise must be used to build momentum for much-needed reforms at the EU level.
New frontiers in democracy support
During the conference, six thematic sessions provided space for exchanges between the audience and democracy support practitioners, who shared their experiences supporting democracy in different contexts and in thematic areas that represent new frontiers for democracy support.
A first area where democracy support is innovating is in hybrid and non-democratic contexts, where different needs and societal restrictions necessitate different ways of working to support democracy. In the session on working in repressive environments, alternatives to financial support were highlighted as a necessity to keep local organisations alive, while in the session on elections in hybrid regimes, practitioners underlined the need for electoral support to be comprehensive, going beyond the technical and reactive to become more proactive and responsive to changing contexts and windows of opportunity.
Other discussions focused on themes where democracy support has not traditionally been active, but where partnerships between democracy work and other fields are fruitful and even necessary to fight the most pressing contemporary challenges. Climate change exacerbates inequalities, especially in countries with rule of law challenges, and at the same time, promoting environmental solutions is difficult without basic rule of law guarantees. Climate resilience, humanitarian work and governance should not be left in separate silos; broad programming approaches are an opportunity to improve interconnections between these challenges.
Another avenue of change is the digital sphere. As the disinformation breakout session underlined, a lot is already being done in this area since the 2019 EP elections, with the Digital Services Act and the Online Political Ads Regulation proposal under discussion. At the same time, supporting and funding civil society that holds government accountable needs to be prioritised for independent and non-partisan scrutiny of governments and ruling parties.
The transversal missing puzzle piece is youth participation – democratic development depends on the next generation of democrats. Currently, youth are being deprioritised in government investments and despite the high education level of today’s youth, opportunities for social mobility and access to democratic participation are often few and far between. To contribute to inclusive societies, youth has to become a top priority for government agendas. Frameworks that build youth capacity to participate in political institutions, as well as long-term support for youth initiatives, are key for meaningful inclusion.
The EU tools for seizing momentum
The current geopolitical context resulting from the triple crises of the climate, the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine builds the case for a broad approach based on coordination. The Team Europe Democracy (TED) initiative implemented by the EU Commission, presented for the first time at the conference, will respond to this context by bringing together 14 EU Member States with the goal of establishing a common external democracy support framework focused on accountability, rule of law, political and civic participation, media, and digital technologies.
TED’s broad operational approach combines research and analytical work with concrete democracy support. Democracy support organisations including International IDEA, Carnegie Europe, Reporters Without Borders and EPD are conducting research on democracy and democracy spending, sharing knowledge about the Summit for Democracy and monitoring country commitments under the umbrella of TED.
The way towards a common EU approach will not come without challenges. The EU is composed of countries that are different in size, influence, and increasingly in acceptance of democratic norms. Mechanisms will need to be created to make sure that a common position is clearly articulated, especially when interacting with other fora such as the Summit for Democracy.
In the words of EPD’s President and ALDA’s Secretary General, Antonella Valmorbida, democracy is not a “box-ticking exercise”. The EU needs to deliver on human rights and rule of law to give citizens a better life. The Conference on the Future of Europe and Team Europe Democracy are just two examples of opportunities to shift away from taking democracy for granted toward treating it as something fundamental to our way of life and our quality of life.