Read any opinion piece or policy document about Western democracy support in 2016 and you are likely to come across a powerful sense of doubt: the feeling that the West is losing credibility in furthering democracy around the world because of mounting dysfunctionalities in its own political systems. Now in question are two core assumptions of the democracy promotion domain—that well-functioning Western systems are able to provide lessons, models, and resources to help others perfect their democratic politics and that the direction of influence is one-way, from the West outward. Western democracy supporters today confront what might be called an internal-external challenge.

An article by my colleague Thomas Carothers, arguing that U.S. democracy promoters have done little to break down the wall between the United States’ democracy support overseas and its democracy problems at home, provoked lively discussions in U.S. policy circles. A natural follow-on question is how the situation in Europe compares to the U.S. picture. The answer is that debates relating to the internal-external challenge are both more advanced and more worrying in Europe. This points the way toward two-way European liberal power.

European Specificities

Among European democracy supporters, this is not an entirely new issue. EU governments, foundations, and institutions have been open about the internal-external issue for some time. However, they are yet to make far-reaching adjustments in practice. They need to do so because in many senses the deterioration of democratic norms is greater in Europe than in the United States. Relative to the United States, Europe’s blurring of the internal-external divide in democracy policy may be both a matter more readily recognized and a problem with more profound implications for the whole structure of liberal foreign policy.

On the one hand, European democracy promoters tend to be less prone to hubris and subtler in how they seek to wield international influence than many of their U.S. counterparts. Many European practitioners have begun to ask genuinely self-reflective and searching questions about the basic tenets of democracy support. To some extent, the very multilateral construct of the EU predisposes European states to two-way influences across national borders—at least in principle.

On the other hand, illiberal trends run deeper in many European countries than they do (so far, that is) in the United States. The United States gives democracy a bad image outside the West because of its institutional gridlock, its ineffective criminal justice system, its flawed elections, and the pervasive role of money in its political system. Several European states give democracy a more sinister image due to their growing intolerance of minorities and immigrants and creeping power centralization. Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy may threaten something similar for the United States, of course, but for the moment intolerant illiberalism remains a possibility there and not an already-prominent, visceral trend as in Europe.

Most European diplomats and democracy promoters would accept that initiatives to deepen democracy externally must go hand in hand with efforts to improve democratic quality internally. But they remain vague on what this might mean in terms of specific policy adjustments. Change needs to go beyond European leaders and officials acknowledging Europe’s own mounting problems in tones of magnanimous humility. The EU still needs to articulate and design tangible inversions, harnessing outside influence to buttress its own democratic norms and identity.

Disaggregating the Challenge

As there are several layers to the internal-external divide in Europe, the problem needs to be broken down into its different components.

One level of the problem stems from the EU’s struggle to find effective ways to prevent democratic reversals in its own member states. An important deficiency here is that of inconsistency: How can the EU impose principled, punitive measures on autocrats around the world when it has been unwilling to use any kind of sanction against the likes of Viktor Orbán in Europe itself? The EU has toughened the conditions it has laid out for a Ukrainian government that is at least nominally committed to democracy, while forwarding funds to a Hungarian leader who proudly flouts the very principles of liberalism.

The issue is not just related to the routinely cited cases of Hungary and now Poland, where the recently elected government has reined in the constitutional court and state media. Slovakia and Croatia have notably illiberal governments. Spain and others have forced through restrictions on protests and freedom of assembly. A number of governments, including the British, have given themselves extensive new surveillance powers. France and others have brought in restrictions on minority rights, especially with respect to Roma people.

At present, internal EU efforts to sustain good governance standards revolve around the formal body of EU rules and laws and lack the more expansive, political tenor of outward democracy support. The EU should work toward narrowing this difference.

In response to trends in Hungary and Poland—and pushed by several member states—the European Commission has elaborated a so-called Rule of Law Framework. This arrangement acknowledges the serious problems that are accumulating, but is yet to have a tangible impact and is tepid in the pressure it deploys. Those European diplomats, political foundation heads, and civil society leaders that have been active in external democracy support should be brought in to inject this framework with some real bite. These democracy support experts should be tasked with ensuring that the Rule of Law Framework and other internal EU policies incorporate the broader set of lessons and experiences from two decades of external liberal-normative policies.

Of course, dealing with ascendant illiberalism, growing populism, and worsening corruption in Eastern Europe as well as in countries like Spain and Italy requires some subtlety. Overly critical pressure on the EU’s own member states could easily backfire. Yet, the EU must surely show some consistency between the way it approaches authoritarian tendencies internally and the way it tackles them outside Europe.

So for example, why not appoint a European democracy special representative to speak out about internal democracy concerns in parallel to the EU’s human rights special representative, who covers such concerns outside Europe? Or, the EU could prepare democracy profiles for its member states with the template it is currently using in a number of external countries. Or a small subset of member states could advance some kind of forum on monitoring European democracy, taking advantage of the scope for flexible cooperation that excludes uncommitted member states. At present, each time Orbán or other leaders make speeches explicitly disparaging liberal values there is rarely any clear EU response—an arresting and deafening silence that many regimes outside Europe pick up on to bolster their own resistance to European pressures for reform.

Paradoxically, Europe’s worrying state of affairs gives the EU more of a positive opportunity than the United States: the European Union could more readily rebut other states’ charges of hubris if it were to knuckle down and deal effectively with its own renegade member states. To do this, European democracy supporters will need a change of mentality. They will need to see practical work on internal challenges as a central pillar of their global work rather than an area that is off-limits or of only minor relevance.

Crossover Democracy Initiatives

Another level of the challenge is that EU and member state democracy support assistance programs need to bridge the internal-external divide. At this level, European democracy supporters are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in their adjustments.

Several democracy institutions now work on political problems in their own countries or in Europe more widely. The remit of the various German foundations in particular already crosses the internal-external border. Some smaller party foundations have similar mandates that include both internal and external work. These include the socialist Pablo Iglesias Foundation and the conservative Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies in Spain; the center-left Jean Jaurès Foundation in France; the social democratic Karl Renner Institute in Austria; and the conservative Constantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy in Greece.

However, most of the best-known democracy assistance organizations that have meaningful amounts of resources retain a traditional focus on external work. This is true of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy. Demo Finland runs activities in Finland that are framed as contributing to internal democratic debate and coalition building, although these are all organized around international development and foreign affairs questions. In practice, the German foundations have kept their internal and external work operationally separate from each other rather than exploring crossovers between the two levels.

European democracy organizations need to take the internal focus further, through formal programs and indicative allocations of funding. EU institutional initiatives need to consider similar steps. Ring-fenced components could be added to initiatives like the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, for example to expose rights-oriented groups in Europe to the experiences of similar groups that the program funds in other regions. The European Endowment for Democracy would be well placed to oversee EU-funded projects aimed at building bridges between pro-democracy activists inside Europe and those outside.

Such innovations would categorically not entail any dilution or distortion of existing external initiatives—a predictable objection that EU democracy organizations would raise. Rather, these steps could begin on a modest scale, without deviating democracy groups’ main focus on international reforms; even modest efforts would at least show a willingness to think in a more two-way fashion and would demonstrate to skeptics that something is being done to address the internal-external imbalance.

More broadly, the EU and its member states must search for ways to cultivate non-Europeans’ involvement in safeguarding European democracy. The internal-external link must be about European countries absorbing lessons and pressures from outside Europe. It is about the EU becoming a recipient of and not only a provider of international influence—and about the union modifying its institutional structures and policies to absorb such influences in a systematic and effective way.

Neither EU institutions nor member states have opened themselves up to advice and help from democrats outside Europe to any meaningful degree. They have not yet adopted any kind of process to receive input. In a reconfigured global order, the union will need to get used to being shaped by others as much as it shapes developments beyond its own borders. It does not yet have either the conceptual orientation or the policy mechanisms to channel such outside influences to deepen democratic quality inside Europe.

The EU could easily create practical initiatives to foster such an inversion. It could, for example, invite a group of non-Western democracies to write a strategy document for improving the EU’s democratic quality. This group could evaluate the EU’s efforts to restrain anti-democratic behavior in its own member states. Why not invite democratic reformers that the EU has supported in other regions to produce recommendations for how the union should deal with autocrats like Viktor Orbán in its own ranks? As I have suggested on other occasions, other countries’ civil society organizations should be invited (and given the funding) to prepare annual progress reports on the EU’s internal democracy efforts along the same lines as those that the EU compiles on other countries.

Non-Western democracies have a wealth of experience that would be relevant to Europe’s current problems. Specific areas where non-European expertise could be useful include:

  • Economic Crises: Attempting to maintain democratic norms in the context of serious economic crisis and draconian structural adjustment is a normal, default state of affairs in developing countries; it is a predicament to which European Union countries now also have to become accustomed. Latin American countries have a rich experience in this area.
  • Democratic Diversity: Europe’s creeping illiberalism is to a large extent the result of popular concerns about immigration and religious-cultural heterogeneity. Other countries around the world have a much richer and more positive experience of dealing with such diversity without resorting to nativist illiberalism. Several African countries, as well as India and Indonesia, offer interesting experiences with managing diversity in a democratic fashion.
  • Community and Moral Values: Non-Western expertise can shed light on how to combine the development of liberal rights with community and moral values that might help mitigate the kind of alienation and politics of fear that now drive European illiberalism. Asian democracies provide examples of countries that have grappled with this challenge.

Undoubtedly, European policymakers and practitioners would heartily concur with the sentiment that democracy support must be about mutual learning and two-way experimentation between different regions. Yet, in their pressured daily work routines they stick to what is familiar—which is the one-way, standard model of democracy support. There is little evidence that the general sentiment in favor of internal-external links is being carried forward to innovative, concrete policy initiatives designed to encourage the flow of helpful pro-democratic experiences and influences into Europe.

Beyond Self-Awareness

A final word of warning: there must be clarity on what an internal-external link is not about. Great care is needed because for some critics the “heal thyself” line implies winding down external support to democratic reformers. If, as Carothers argues, the United States is still too confidently wedded to the idea that democracy support “out there” is rooted in democratic success at home, the bigger danger in Europe may be that the internal-external crossover prompts a fatalistic withering away of democracy support. In a sense, the internal-external link could almost lead to an overcompensation in European democracy policies.

NGOs in countries beyond the EU’s borders need support, whatever the state of play in European democracies. For cash-strapped civil society organizations, money is money; each euro they receive is valuable whether EU democracy is flourishing or sinking. There is a thin line between, on the one hand, a healthy focus on Europe getting its own house in order rather than lecturing the rest of the world and, on the other hand, simply stepping away from helping democrats abroad at all. The internal-external link must not end up being about reducing support to non-European NGOs in order to focus on internal European problems—outside actors may hate Western condescension but would hardly welcome such a switch. The fact that development aid is now being diverted into managing the reception of refugees in Europe is an incipient cause for concern in this sense. Brave freedom fighters in Ukraine or Egypt should certainly not be made to pay the price for Europe’s own democratic shortfalls.

Rather, the EU and its member states should work to empower external democratic actors even more generously than they do at present and in a way that is more tailored to make a contribution to monitoring and holding in check Europe’s own illiberal slide. In this way, stronger external democracy support could be made to work as an asset for internal democracy support—instead of being treated as a trade-off for it.

In the last five years, it has become commonplace for European ministers and commissioners and the EU high representative for foreign and security policy to admit with apparently repentant modesty that the EU model may no longer hold quite the same sway over other regions as it once did. Even if this is obvious enough by now that it hardly needs to be constantly repeated, such contrition is a welcome step forward.

The risk is that these words will increasingly ring false if they are not backed up by some substantive change that brings the EU into contact with the world as an importer, not merely an exporter, of democratic practice. In their myopic self-assurance, today’s leaders and diplomats have taken the European project to the brink of dissolution, yet perplexingly they do little to cast around for ideas and help from those outside who might have more successful democratic lessons to share. Democracy support should increasingly be about exchanging experiences in confronting the crisis of democracies around the world, acknowledging that democracy everywhere is an unfinished process that needs constant self-adjustment. Hollow rhetorical humility must cede room to more practical two-way liberal power.