The EU has recently drawn up or is currently drafting new policies for several aspects of its external relations: the European Neighborhood Policy, defense, security, migration, trade, and energy security. Far less noticed, on July 20 the EU Council of Ministers adopted a new action plan for democracy and human rights.

While this action plan includes many admirable elements, it is strikingly low-key compared with the more traditional security and defense reviews under way. Tellingly, many working on these new foreign policy strategies know nothing of the democracy and human rights strategy. This shows that the EU’s promise of cross-fertilization between different areas of external relations remains unfulfilled.

If the new action plan is to correct a widespread suspicion that democracy and human rights are decreasing in priority, the EU and its member states will need to demonstrate stronger political will and define better tactics of democracy support.

The Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy (2015–2019) promises “additional political momentum and enhanced commitment” to support human rights and democracy around the world. Under the strategy, the EU says it will broaden its support for new social movements and political parties and deal with the fast-spreading threats to civic space and repressive laws against NGOs.

This is a second-phase plan that follows on from the EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy that covered 2012–2014. According to the European External Action Service and the European Commission, the first action plan produced 97 policy improvements and delivered stronger human rights support.

Yet the strategy was largely invisible within high-level EU foreign policy deliberations. Many of the improvements were about internal EU processes. While these reforms were extremely valuable, in many countries around the world it is difficult to identify tangible change to EU approaches. The EU has introduced new mechanisms and tools—like the special representative for human rights—but has not developed a sharper or more proactive substantive strategy toward democracy and human rights.

The 2015 plan reiterates the same goals as the 2012 document. But the revised strategy does not indicate exactly how the supposedly upgraded approach will be different from the first action plan.

The new plan does not say if the EU will increase resources for democracy support. It gives no detail of how or where support for social movements is to be delivered. Nor does it specify how conditionality will be used. Puzzlingly, while the action plan has been going through the institutional machinery, the external action service’s leadership has launched proposals to discontinue the post of director for democracy and human rights.

Officials have tried to advance with the preparation of very concrete democracy profiles and action plans in a pilot exercise involving some 20 delegations around the world. But this process has been painstakingly slow and under-resourced, and has met with political-level ambivalence from most member states and EU institutions.

EU member states need to define better tactics of #democracy support.
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EU diplomats acknowledge that the action plan needs stronger buy-in from member states—and they have structured the process to encourage this engagement. However, democracy support is becoming a specialized area involving no more than a handful of EU countries. Democracy support does not, for example, appear to have a prominent place within Germany’s recent foreign policy review and the country’s incipient concept of responsible foreign policy.

Most member states still feel more comfortable focusing on core human rights issues—like the death penalty—than on the more systemic elements of democracy support. This is because human rights are rooted in the kind of legal foundations that underpin the EU project itself. The new action plan remains oriented more toward human rights than toward democracy.

In really tough political environments, the (still relatively new) European Endowment for Democracy (EED) is trying to maintain support for democratic reformers. This begs for clarity over how the endowment’s expanding work relates to broader EU democracy support. The EED should be a complement to, rather than substitute for, member-state efforts. The risk is that member states are increasingly passing the buck to the EED in geopolitically important states.

A new democracy strategy needs to demonstrate its concrete relevance in countries where the democratic space is closing fast. Take Egypt as an example. The EU needs to harness its new action plan to unblock European reform initiatives that have ground to a halt inside Egypt, as member states are reluctant to confront the regime. Yet, with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi being welcomed in European capitals and securing huge investment contracts from European companies, one wonders how the action plan can achieve this.

The EU's #democracy action plan needs stronger buy-in from member states.
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In short, much work remains if the updated and improved action plan is to serve as a platform for more effective EU democracy support. The plan will need to dovetail with EU bilateral relations in individual third countries, reverse member states’ antipathy to external democracy support, and mobilize additional resources from across the EU institutions.

Yet, the action plan has so far garnered nowhere near the kind of high-level engagement, comment, or activity that other strategy-defining exercises have done. This reflects member states’ growing uncertainty over the role of fundamental values in EU foreign policy.