Mark Rutte, Ursula von der Leyen, Kaïs Saïed , and Giorgia Meloni shaking hands
Mark Rutte, Ursula von der Leyen, Kais Saied, and Giorgia Meloni. | Photo: Dati Bendo, © European Union, 2023

EU Democracy Support in the Southern Neighborhood: How the EU Contradicts its own Practices

For decades, the EU has declared that it aims to support democratization in its southern neighborhood. Yet, the EU’s cooperation with repressive rulers in other policy fields, such as energy, migration, security, and trade, contradicts the EU’s own democracy support objectives. European policymakers have apparently not learnt from the pre-2011 period. As we argue in our project SHAPEDEM-EU, the EU must embark on a journey of un-, de- and re-learning, and it must avoid contradicting practices in different policy fields. This can be done by introducing a democracy learning loop.

On July 16, 2023, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, together with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, posed alongside Tunisia’s President Kais Saied to celebrate the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding earmarking around Euro 1bn EU funds mainly targeting macro-economic stability, trade and investments, renewable energy, and, most importantly, migration management. Approximately two years earlier, Saied had indulged in a self-coup, issuing an emergency declaration which froze the work of Tunisia’s parliament and saw the firing of its prime minister. Saied assumed all executive power, and since then, he has worked on re-installing authoritarianism in a country that was long perceived as the last beacon of hope left from the Arab Uprisings.

Tunisia’s democratic backsliding is first and foremost a dramatic development for the Tunisian people; and it represents a major test for the EU’s stated desire to establish “A partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”. After the Arab Uprisings, the EU had seemingly reconsidered its decades-long and largely unconditional cooperation with authoritarian regimes in the region, declaring a genuine desire to truly support democratization from there on. Yet, against the backdrop of increasing uncertainty and the fear of instability, the tide soon turned. Particularly striking is that the EU has seemingly once again not learnt from previous and ongoing malpractices in the area of democracy support.

EU Democracy Support: A Constellation of Communities of Practices

Within the context of the 3-year Horizon Europe project SHAPEDEM-EU, we explain the EU’s non-learning by conceptualizing EU democracy support as a multi-layered constellation of communities of practice (CoP). A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a common concern/objective, a set of challenges/problems, or an interest in a topic/issue/policy area and who come together to fulfill these group goals.

A variety of different CoPs within the constellation are loosely connected due to their practices which are all (directly or indirectly) related to democratization in neighboring countries. However, these CoPs hardly ever interact with each other, and each of them performs its practices based on specific background knowledge and each functions according to a particular habitus. Therefore, ideas and knowledge hardly ever travel between them, hindering (joint) learning and resulting in constant reproduction of EU democracy support malpractices as well as contradicting EU practices in different policy areas.

The constant reproduction of democracy support malpractices can mainly be explained by the non-interaction and lack of learning between, on the one hand, the CoP of the usual suspects who are running the democracy support industry, both within the EU and in the neighborhood, and, on the other hand, the CoP of  unheard, contesting voices who aim to make democracy support more inclusive and bottom-up, as well as more receptive to local ideas and understandings of democratization. The constant reproduction of conflicting practices by the EU in the fields of democracy support and other areas, such as energy, migration, security, and trade, results from the fact that these policy fields are designed by different CoPs: the community of EU democracy support practices and different communities of other EU foreign affairs practices which hardly ever engage with each other and insufficiently coordinate their practices. Consequently, performed practices in other fields often contradict those of democracy support, and the EU has no coherent approach comprising all policy areas relevant for democratization.

Contradicting Practices: How the EU Ridicules any Talk of Democracy Support

While the EU upholds its image as a normative power, it has returned to its pre-2011 practice of largely unconditional cooperation with authoritarian regimes and propping up repressive rulers whom it perceives as the only actors capable of safeguarding stability – avoiding instability (at all costs) has remained Brussels’ priority. Turning a blind eye to devastating developments in Tunisia, the EU embraces Kais Saied, for instance. While von der Leyen claimed that “[t]he objective [of the agreement] is to support a holistic migration policy rooted in the respect of human rights,” in reality, the externalization of EU border management stands at its core, despite well-documented abuses against black African foreigners by Tunisian security forces. Already in 2016, the EU had signed a somewhat similar deal with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose policies have made Turkey increasingly illiberal and authoritarian.

It is not only the EU but also member states who perform practices contradicting any measures of democracy support, for example in security cooperation. Egypt is a case in point. Since the military coup in 2013, the regime of Abdelfattah al-Sisi has harshly repressed any opposition and gradually reinstalled authoritarian structures, ensuring its own grip on power. Nevertheless, EU members have closely cooperated with the Egyptian regime on issues relating to terrorism, despite the regime’s (over-) militarized approach which disregards the human rights of Bedouins on the Sinai, for example, as well as its usage of the label “terrorism” to imprison tens of thousands of peaceful oppositionists and critics. Also, EU member states have become the largest providers of arms. According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in the period 2015–2022, some 55% of Egypt’s arms imports came from EU member states, especially France, Germany, and Italy. Before 2013, Egypt was not a major destination for European arms exports, but since then the country has become the largest recipient overall.

In the field of energy, Italy has increased natural gas imports from Libya and Algeria, ignoring human rights concerns. The German government has, amongst others, approached Egypt as an alternative provider of natural gas in its attempt to reduce dependency on Russia. The list goes on. All these examples illustrate that the EU, as well as its member states, have relied on – and in many cases aim to expand – cooperation with authoritarian regimes in the southern neighborhood, especially in the fields of energy, migration, security, and trade. By largely ignoring questions of democratization, they thereby contradict their own practices of democracy support.

Of course, no one is expecting the EU to bring about democratic change from the outside, least of all the few remaining players who still try to push for democratization within the neighboring countries. However, as stressed by Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) which has been under attack by the Egyptian regime for years, they at least expect that the EU does not make their work even more difficult by propping up dictators and by repeatedly disillusioning reformists. EU practices contradicting democracy support send fatal messages to both authoritarian regimes, who are reassured that they can continue their repressive policies, and to local democratization activists and oppositionists, who often get the impression that they cannot trust the EU’s rhetoric of supporting democracy.

Towards a Democracy Learning Loop

This rigid and entrenched structure – the constellation of CoPs which are largely detached from each other – has emerged over decades, and it hinders joint learning between CoPs. To reduce the resulting contradictions of EU practices in different policy fields and to end the constant reproduction of EU democracy support malpractices, SHAPEDEM-EU suggests introducing a democracy learning loop, as envisioned by Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh. In this loop, all CoPs would constantly interact, openly exchange and discuss background knowledge and ideas, provide mutual feedback, as well as eventually jointly learn to improve their practices. Importantly, the loop must be inclusive both regarding actors involved and ideas considered.

To kick-start the process of introducing a democracy learning loop, the boundaries between CoPs must be made more flexible, and more exchange is needed. In that context, brokers could play an important role and build bridges between different CoPs. They can, for example, translate knowledge, support the travel of ideas, and facilitate joint learning opportunities. Multiple membership should be enabled, too. More individuals could, for example, be members of the communities of EU democracy support practices and the communities of other EU foreign affairs practices (i.e., energy, migration, security, trade) simultaneously, reducing contradictions between EU practices in different foreign policy fields.

Moreover, practices of contestation must play a key role in the learning loop, both within CoPs as well as between CoPs, because contestation allows for the deepest possible reflection on ideal outcomes and solutions. Of particular importance is local contestation. Today, the usual suspects are running the industry and setting the agenda, with gatekeepers ensuring that no other actors become involved in knowledge production and thus the design of EU practices. Accordingly, amongst others, local ideas (and understandings of democracy) are hardly ever considered. Within the democracy learning loop, CoPs of local democratization practices would be placed center stage and given true agency. The EU – or the usual suspects of EU democracy support, to be more precise – has to start to actively listen, and they at first have to embark on a journey of un- and de-learning, before re-learning within the democracy learning loop can even begin.

Dealing with autocracies in democracy promotion will also be one of the topics at PRIF’s Annual Conference 2023 on October 12 and 13, 2023. Michelle Pace, co-author of this blog post will discuss this issue on Panel 3 (Friday, October 13, 2023, 9–10.45 a.m).

Michelle Pace

Michelle Pace

Michelle Pace ist Professorin für Global Studies an der Roskilde Universität in Dänemark. Ihre Forschung fokussiert sich auf die Schnittstellen von European Studies, Middle East Studies, Critical Migration Studies, Democratization Studies and Conflict Studies. Sie ist die führende dänische Partnerin des Horizon Europe Projekts SHAPEDEM-EU. // Michelle Pace is Professor in Global Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark. Her research focuses on the intersection between European Studies, Middle East Studies, Critical Migration Studies, Democratization Studies and Conflict Studies. She is the Danish Lead partner of the Horizon Europe project SHAPEDEM-EU.
Christian Achrainer

Christian Achrainer

Christian Achrainer ist PostDoc-Forscher an der Universität Roskilde (RUC), wo er an dem Horizon Europe Projekt SHAPEDEM-EU beteiligt ist. Außerdem arbeitet er als freiberuflicher Analyst in Berlin an der Schnittstelle zwischen Wissenschaft, Politik/Politikberatung und Zivilgesellschaft. // Christian Achrainer is a PostDoc researcher at Roskilde University (RUC), where he is involved in the Horizon Europe project SHAPEDEM-EU. Besides, he is a Berlin-based freelance analyst, working at the interface between academia, politics/political consultation, and civil society.

Michelle Pace

Michelle Pace ist Professorin für Global Studies an der Roskilde Universität in Dänemark. Ihre Forschung fokussiert sich auf die Schnittstellen von European Studies, Middle East Studies, Critical Migration Studies, Democratization Studies and Conflict Studies. Sie ist die führende dänische Partnerin des Horizon Europe Projekts SHAPEDEM-EU. // Michelle Pace is Professor in Global Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark. Her research focuses on the intersection between European Studies, Middle East Studies, Critical Migration Studies, Democratization Studies and Conflict Studies. She is the Danish Lead partner of the Horizon Europe project SHAPEDEM-EU.

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