The European Union yesterday formally agreed to establish a European endowment for democracy to encourage “deep and sustainable” change in countries ruled by repressive regimes.
The initiative was confirmed as the EU released its Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy with a commitment to “step up its efforts to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law across all aspects of external action” [EU-speak for foreign policy].
The EU has been criticized for stressing engagement with authoritarian regimes at the expense of support for democratic forces and the EU’s new ‘master plan’ reflects a strategic shift in this regard, say observers.
“The overthrow of autocratic regimes in Europe in 1989 and the public uprisings during the Arab Spring show that the power of the people is ultimately more significant than the people in power,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch.
“Tomorrow, the hard work begins of turning words into action, and we will be watching to see that EU member states and institutions practice what they preach,” she told the EU Observer.
The strategic plan takes a more activist-focused approach, stressing the interdependence of human rights, civil society and democracy.
“Courageous individuals fighting for human rights worldwide frequently find themselves the target of oppression and coercion; the EU will intensify its political and financial support for human rights defenders and step up its efforts against all forms of reprisals,” the policy document states.
“A vigorous and independent civil society is essential to the functioning of democracy and the implementation of human rights; effective engagement with civil society is a cornerstone of a successful human rights policy,” says the plan.
The endowment, initiated by the Polish EU presidency in June 2011, is expected to become operational within the next 6 months, providing assistance civil society, independent media, labor unions, youth groups, and other pro-democracy actors, largely targeting the EU’s eastern and southern peripheries.
The new body will provide “will carry swift and effective assistance” to activists within the EU’s ‘neighborhood’, said Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski. He expected the endowment to agree a location for its headquarters, appoint staff and propose its first programs “by the end of the year.”
The endowment will be funded by the European Commission and member states, and some observers are concerned that significant funds may not be forthcoming at a time when many EU member states are in the midst of economic crisis and fiscal austerity.
“Candidates will not apply for the fund, but EU officials in Brussels will decide who gets support on a ‘low-profile’ case-by-case basis,” reports suggest.
Target countries will include Belarus, widely considered to be “Europe’s last dictatorship.”
More EU support could help Belarusian democrats’ efforts to “awaken” a society buckled by fear and apathy, Nasta Palazhanka, the leader of the banned Youth Front, told EU Observer:
Many young Belarusians, she said, keep a low profile for fear of arbitrary and pre-emptive arrests.
“Lukashenka is afraid of an awakening among this indifferent mass. This is why he frequently expels students and threatens to fire their parents,” she said.
The EU’s new Strategic Framework and Action Plan shares some commonalities with the Obama administration’s ‘revitalized’ approach to promoting democracy and human rights.
The EU undertakes to “strengthen its capability and mechanisms for early warning and prevention of crises liable to entail human rights violations,” in an effort that may come to resemble the administration’s recently announced Atrocities Prevention Board.
Brussels is also taking a notably multilateral, partnership-based approach to democracy assistance, pledging to “deepen its cooperation with partner countries, international organizations and civil society, and build new partnerships to adapt to changing circumstances.”
The EU echoes a recent US emphasis on internet freedom, stating that it will “continue to promote freedom of expression, opinion, assembly and association, both on-line and offline; democracy cannot exist without these rights.”
The new endowment will not replace but run parallel to existing EU democracy assistance programs such as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights which have been criticized as overly bureaucratic and slow to respond to changing circumstances and grass-roots demands.
“As a leading donor to civil society, the EU will continue supporting human rights defenders under the [EIDHR] and make funding operations more flexible and more accessible,” says the Strategic Framework.
A partnership-based approach, featuring “joint projects with other organizations, such as the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the UN and the Council of Europe, could increase available sources of funding,” for the new European endowment, according to a recent report from a Brussels-based think-tank:
The EED should promote the pooling of resources through so-called ‘basket funding’. To avoid stirring up controversy over the nature of particular organizations, the choice should be made carefully each time. The EED should be able to identify preferable partner organizations in advance in order to speed up the process and streamline the cooperation. Once the EED proves its value by developing a strong and uncontroversial brand, it will become easier to mobilize additional funding.