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Good governance

Sensible but insufficient

by Maria Elisabeth Rotter

In depth

Protesters upset about election manipulations in Russia in December

Protesters upset about election manipulations in Russia in December

For the European Union, it matters very much that democratic change succeed in the Arab world. The EU was just as unprepared for the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East as it was for December’s street protests in Russia over electoral fraud. In the future, a new European Endowment for Democracy is supposed to make sure that shortcomings of this sort do not occur again. So far, however, the Endowment does not seem to amount to more than holding conventions on the topic regularly. That will not do. By Maria Elisabeth Rotter

The plan of starting a European Endowment for Democracy (EED) is very popular among EU member states at the moment. The idea is to promote democracy and civil society. The proposal for the EED was first made by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. The European Commission took it up in its communiqué “A response to the changing neighbourhood” in May 2011. Plans for the EED were developed further under the Polish EU presidency in autumn last year, and are supposed to be implemented by next year.

The name EED brings to mind the USA’s National Endowment for Democracy, which was founded in 1983 and modelled after Germany’s political foundations, which are close to political parties (please note the comment on the recent activities and current legal problems of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Egypt on page 84). However, the plans for the EED have little in common with the well-established US institution.

Indeed, the Polish proposal is not about setting up a new institution. Instead, it is about holding regular conventions in Warsaw, where EU members would exchange ideas, set priorities and pledge funds. The European External Action Service, the European Commission and the European Parliament would manage these conventions “at arm’s length”. Initially, the programme’s budget would be about € 20 million to 30 million a year, rising eventually to € 100 million. The funding would include money from the EU budget as well as additional contributions from member states.

Initially, the EED is to focus on Europe’s immediate neighbours in the Mediterranean region and Eastern Europe. Later, it might expand its reach. The EED conventions are supposed to focus on civil society more than do other EU programmes, which have been criticised for being too state-centred and have apparently lost influence in places like Belarus, Ukraine and the western Balkans.

Good ends, poor means

The EU certainly needs to step up the promotion of democracy and human rights – but the EED model under discussion is inadequate for that purpose. Conventions managed by three EU institutions with conflicting interests may easily turn into something like a grant-making gravy train.

Mere conventions cannot draft the kind of coherent political strategy that is needed to guide funding decisions. More­over, a convention-based instrument is likely to focus on countries that already are in the public spotlight. Meetings of this kind lack offices and sources in the countries they are supposed to support, even though they need the expertise of both in order to take good decisions. Given the circumstances, the EED conventions will typically have to decide ad hoc, which is not a good basis for designing sensible programmes for individual countries or regions.

Conventions, moreover, are likely to prefer big, low-risk programmes over smaller and more innovative measures, which are much harder to administer. Big, low-risk programmes, moreover, can hardly be adapted sufficiently to the situations prevailing on the ground – and that was the problem with programmes western nations ran in transformation countries in central and eastern Europe in the 1990s. They deservedly were criticised for being out of touch by the countries concerned, led by Poland. It would be quite an irony for the Polish approach to European democracy promotion to repeat these mistakes.

So far, the responsibilities of the EED do not appear to be clearly defined. A big issue is how the EED will cooperate with the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). Founded in 2007, the EIDHR supports civil society organisations and funds election observers. For good reason, the EIDHR has been criticised for its technocratic and inflexible approach, and for setting low political expectations. The EED, however, is not meant to replace the EIDHR. Instead, it will complement it. Duplication of efforts will be inevitable.

Officially, the EED is supposed to become one of six pillars of a reformed EU neighbourhood policy. But it remains unclear what that will mean for other institutions that promote democracy in the region. The EU has earmarked € 1.2 billion for such purposes this year. Most likely, EED funds will be disbursed on top of such money initially, until responsibilities are rearranged at some point in the future.

Another issue is how the EED will relate to member countries’ agencies that promote democracy abroad, Germany’s political foundations for example, or Bri­tain’s Westminster Foundation, or the Netherlands Institute for Multi-Party Democracy. Of course, representatives of such foundations can participate in EED conventions to share information and arrange some kind of division of labour. It would be more effective, however, to give the EED unique characteristics to set it apart from the existing national institutions that are active in this field.

EED implementation is also likely to prove tricky. Even if conventions should manage to start strategic decision making, promote useful projects and avoid duplication, they will hardly be able to monitor and evaluate the programmes they fund on an ongoing regular basis. Because it is set up as a series of conventions, the EED is in danger of becoming ineffective as well as inefficient.

Two alternatives

The EU should consider two alternatives instead of hastily establishing something new. One would be a complete overhaul of the EIDHR with the goal of higher aspirations, less bureaucracy and easier access to funding for civil society organisations. As of January 2012, the European Commission plans to strenghten EIDHR through a new EU regulation. The current draft specifies the instrument’s jurisdiction but does not allow for a more flexible application process.

The other approach would be to turn Europe’s political foundations, inklings of which already exist, into democracy promoting institutions designed according to the German model. As Germany’s political foundations have proved time and again, institutions of their kind can establish trusting, value-based, long-term relationships with local organi­sations in partner countries.

Since they are ideologically linked to political parties they are particularly well suited for cooperation with parties, parliaments and civil society organisations of political relevance in countries that are in the process of democratic transformation. The European Network of Political Foundations could coordinate their efforts at the EU level.

This is unlikely to happen however since EU member countries agreed to take the first steps towards establishing the EED on 15 December 2011. The Endowment is likely to see the light of day this year. Therefore, Germany’s Federal Government should encourage a few changes to make it as efficient and effective as possible.
– The EED should disburse funds to agencies that have on-the-ground expertise and rely on established planning procedures.
– Project evaluation should not be left to the agencies the EED funds. That job should be done by the European External Action Service or external contractors.
– The name should be changed. “European Endowment for Democracy” is misleading because the Convention will not be an institution in its own right. Moreover, the name reminds one of the aforementioned US institution, the activities of which are controversial in the Arab world. The wrong name can unnecessarily undermine the new instrument.

The new European approach to democracy promotion will need constant attention from its supporters who must ensure that it is about more than just granting funds. It is necessary to draft a strategy, coordinate programmes and evaluate results critically. The ability to attract attention is one of the few advantages regular conventions have. So despite many caveats, there is reason to hope that the European Endowment for Democracy will eventually lead to a more strategically oriented European promotion of democracy.