Europeans have long had a tendency to lecture the rest of the world about democracy. The EU implicitly and sometimes explicitly views its own democratic recipes and regulations as suitable models for the rest of the world. Some observers have criticized this European habit for revealing a sense of moral superiority inherited from the colonial pasts of some EU member states who not so long ago systematically denied the rights of political participation to the same populations they now seek to supposedly rescue.
But what if the decolonizing agenda was taken one step further by asking not what Europe can teach others but what the rest of the world can teach Europe? Could Europeans recover the spirit of Montesquieu’s iconoclastic Persian Letters from three hundred years ago, albeit now without claiming to see as others see? Might it be fruitful to reverse the democratic gaze, especially as democracy in Europe is beset by difficulties associated with populism and authoritarian trends in Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser extent other member states?
Some in the EU have begun to express interest in such two-way mutual learning on democracy. But it remains unclear what such proposals mean tangibly for how Europe does democracy promotion. An emergent spirit of mutual learning is welcome and overdue, but more concrete initiatives are needed to put into practice this vision of reversing the democratic gaze.
A Role for Outside Inspirations?
For several years, it has been clear that traditional Western (including European) models of external democracy support need to change. Europeans ought to embrace an approach based more on mutual learning across the divide between Western and non-Western powers and between traditional donors and recipients. Democratic backsliding in the West underscores that the EU and other Western powers can no longer focus only on projecting democratic values outward: they need to consider how outside experiences and influences from beyond the West might help redress their own democratic malaise. Established Western democracies need to be more willing to be on the receiving end of influence over democratic best practices and not only seek to exert it.
There are plenty of fascinating lessons on democracy from around the world, lessons that call for self-reflexivity, mutual engagement, and decentering on the part of Western actors. For example, consider the case of “transformative constitutionalism.” This concept, which emerged from the South African experience, describes a holistic, long-term approach to improving the democratic character of a society’s political and social institutions through the enactment, interpretation, and enforcement of its constitution. In past decades, Indian democracy has often offered valuable lessons through its management of Hindu-Muslim tensions, even if this spirit has partly been squandered under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
From Brazil to Lebanon, activists and communities have developed participatory initiatives to press their governments harder on issues of corruption and poor local services. Across Africa and Asia, new ways of fashioning inclusive political settlements have sometimes given minority groups a share of power. Democracies in developing countries have often explored ways of combining economic, social, and political rights into single reform agendas. They have also sometimes found ways of bringing together professional democracy-focused NGOs and more traditional forms of community organizing.
In addition, certain non-Western international institutions have novel mechanisms for suspending states that breach the democratic criteria of membership. Several of these regional bodies have democratic clauses that are more detailed and elaborate than those of the EU. The African Union and the Commonwealth of Nations, for instance, rely on permanent bodies to scrutinize potential breaches of their respective democratic standards. Members of the Organization of American States (OAS) can be sanctioned over democracy concerns, while Mercosur’s 1998 Ushuaia Protocol provides another means of upholding democratic principles.
Unlike the EU, many of these regional organizations have taken firm action and suspended countries’ membership rights because of democratic breaches. For instance, Honduras has been suspended from the Central American Integration System, Paraguay from Mercosur, Cuba from the OAS, Madagascar from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and Libya and Syria from the Arab League. One can argue that members of regional organizations are all the more committed to strongly institutionalizing supranational safeguards where democracy appears to be more fragile, but one should also ask whether Europe’s democratic processes are uniquely beyond question.
Regional organizations can also offer lessons on democratic engagement. The Economic Community of West African States has a wide panoply of powers to decide on multistakeholder fact-finding missions as well as mediation, facilitation, negotiation, and reconciliation efforts. The SADC has institutionalized national committees that include civil society actors; these committees give input on the formulation of the bloc’s regional policies. Meanwhile, various regional organizations in Latin America have crafted wider consultative networks of societal actors than the ones customarily included in EU consultations. Mercosur, for example, has a consultative forum comprised of representatives from the various subnational levels of government in its member states, such as municipalities, provinces, and departments—an arrangement that casts a much wider net than the EU’s corresponding Committee of the Regions. For its part, the Andean Community has a consultative forum for representatives from the municipalities of its member states and a forum for Indigenous people in these countries.
Globally speaking, while the institutionalized processes for the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are extremely complex and unwieldy, they do have certain strengths. This approach offers more civic participation as well as more transparent and inclusive processes than the EU does for its external action, while more explicitly dealing with the imbalances between postindustrial and developing countries in the burden-sharing debate over climate change.
To be sure, none of these setups are perfect, and they have their flaws. But they do offer important and alternative takes on transnational interventions to bolster democracy and activism within and across national borders.
A Refocused Gaze?
While some EU policymakers have paid lip service to the idea of mutual learning, the EU institutions and member states in practice have done little to give it tangible substance. Democratic actors around the world still commonly accuse the EU of eurocentrism. The EU’s neighborhood policy and its relationships with African countries also continue to be critiqued for the ways they maintain colonial-era hierarchies and the European tendency to focus on the one-way, outward promotion of the EU’s purportedly successful model. If the EU genuinely aspires to be a postcolonial power, it cannot be content with this one-way perspective on democracy and the rule of law.
Some EU democracy programs in other countries have become more sensitive to host countries’ concerns. The union has created many forums and initiatives for local voices from other countries to give feedback on its external democracy policies; most funded projects now follow proposals coming from these actors themselves. European diplomats protest that the standard charge that the EU blindly imposes its own model and preferences wholesale is now grossly unfair. Yet these tentative changes need to go a lot further. And looking in the reverse direction, the EU has not developed any comparable mechanisms for other countries to exercise equivalent influence over Europe’s own democratic malaise.
If the EU institutions, the union’s member states, and European civil society organizations are to develop a genuinely two-way democracy policy, they will need to establish a new set of initiatives designed specifically to bridge this internal-external divide. Reversing the democratic gaze must be about more than a general attitude; such an undertaking needs to be made concrete though practical democracy-support initiatives and a fundamental reordering of European democracy policies.
Institutional structures within European governments, EU bodies, and civil society groups including democracy foundations do not favor channels for two-way feedback and influence. The EU has a complex array of institutional actors involved in democracy issues, but it contains no decisionmaking apparatus for receiving external feedback from other countries rather than projecting the union’s rules and regulations onto other states. Given the scale of power shifts around the world, this setup is now unduly one-sided.
Democracy-focused foundations most commonly hold an international, outward-oriented remit that militates against fostering inward-looking democratic introspection. Some entities, particularly nongovernmental ones, do work on internal and external democracy challenges. But European governments and foundations have very few examples of projects designed specifically to use external experiences to tackle internal European democracy problems. The internal and external elements of European democracy policy still mostly function as two separate worlds. Many government donors fear, perhaps understandably, that engaging in sensitive internal political issues would divert attention from their long-standing external democracy support aimed at the most acute authoritarian challenges in the rest of the world.
If those traditionally engaged in external democracy work have not been well-placed to link their activities to domestic concerns about European democracy, those engaged in domestic policy work have not linked their work to the external dimension of European democracy promotion. The sizeable EU funds available for projects within member states on issues of rights and values do not show any discernible links with the union’s external democracy support initiatives or any signs of paying attention to lessons about democracy that can be drawn from outside Europe. The European Commission for many years has supported civil society organizations under the Europe for Citizens initiative and the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme. These programs have been revamped under the EU’s 2021–2027 Multiannual Financial Framework with funding allocated for a new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) Programme, which has a total budget of nearly 1.6 billion euros. But these funds have no link to the support channeled through the European Commission to democracy actors elsewhere in the world.
Over the years, the EU’s internal funding profile for the cause of democracy has remained different from that of its external democracy support. The CERV Programme has not drawn on the experience gleaned from many years of EU funding for external democracy support in difficult political contexts where democracy is greatly threatened. Internal democracy-related projects have tended to focus on helping civil society organizations mobilize behind common EU initiatives and the topic of deeper integration, with an unspoken, uncritical assumption that the EU model is somehow synonymous with and inseparable from good templates for improving democratic quality.
Yet however valuable many of these internal funding initiatives may be, their focus has a very different feel from externally facing programs for democracy support. This is because the outward-facing programs have evolved and increasingly homed in on supporting local resistance to hostile governments and protecting democratic actors more directly from repression. Twenty years of lessons from supporting democracy externally in these ways have so far found little resonance within the EU’s internal democracy policies.
Mutual Learning and Beyond?
What, then, might it look like in practice to have democracy initiatives that are simultaneously internal and external in focus? There is clearly room for the EU, its member states, other European governments, and democracy foundations to fund many more initiatives that join together European and non-European democratic reformers. This model ought to become something akin to a standard best practice. It would be especially helpful for programs on countering civic repression, digital challenges, and media-sector problems, as well as those that offer inclusive forms of power sharing or teach effective protest tactics, as these issues are of shared concern within and beyond Europe. The EU’s international democracy-related activities could more readily include domestic actors, and the union’s domestic rights and values activities could more routinely include international actors.
What are needed are programs that aim to absorb many kinds of lessons for efforts to sustain and strengthen democracy in Europe. Civic activists elsewhere in the world have more experience in remolding their activities to protect against repression, and their experiences could help European civil society organizations better resist the kinds of civil rights restrictions that nearly all EU governments have introduced in recent years. Activists elsewhere have track records of finding ways to maintain protest activities by circumventing government restrictions; as many European governments narrow the freedom of assembly, for instance, these experiences could be highly instructive domestically in such EU member states.
A key question is whether any kind of influence is possible beyond soft mutual-learning exercises. Support for more projects bringing together internal and external democratic voices would generally not be controversial. Some EU member states might raise skeptical questions, but such initiatives are likely to remain low profile. While more of these initiatives would undoubtedly be welcome, this kind of mutual learning is an extremely soft form of two-way influence and will be insufficient to reverse the democratic gaze. Democratic reformers would incorporate lessons and experiences from their counterparts outside Europe and learn new tactics, but this model by itself would make only a small dent in the multiple factors undermining democratic quality.
The challenge is to deepen mutual learning but also explore ways of bringing more inward-bound political pressure to bear on European democratic shortcomings. At this more political level, the two-way ethos of democratic accountability tends to lose substance. Other powers’ leverage over the EU is not comparable with EU actions in other countries—most other countries do not individually have the means to exert influence of the same magnitude. But they do hold a potential power of example in some instances. The democratic clauses and processes of other regional and global institutions remain limited in many ways, but the EU should be learning from their successes and limitations, rather than vaingloriously trumpeting its own unilateral “Brussels effect” over others.
If Europeans start to draw on the democratic experiences of other countries and fashion inbound sources of influence, these changes could result in new forms of practice that move Europe in the direction of genuine mutual engagement on at least three fronts.
First, the EU could fund a commission made up of non-EU activists, leading democratic reformers, and experts to prepare regular monitoring reports on democracy in the EU at the local and national levels. The EU could also invite democracy figures from outside Europe to help mediate where sharp differences are clearly shaking the democratic processes of the EU or its member states—mirroring the way the union increasingly does so in others’ internal processes. One place to start could be mediating between local or municipal actors and national politicians in countries like Hungary and Poland, for example. Crucially, inside the EU as is the case outside it, this may mean bypassing or at least complementing engagement with the state in question and its agents.
Second, the EU could start to learn from other regional and global multilateral institutions by encouraging an exchange of best practices on democracy under the aegis of the UN, possibly as a better alternative to the idea of an alliance of democracies that the United States periodically promotes. While such an alliance would be highly problematic if it amounted to Western finger wagging and gatekeeping in the eyes of the rest of the world, the laudable intentions behind the proposal could be fruitfully channeled if they led to an inclusive space for mutual monitoring and democracy support. In parallel, EU delegations could also be charged with feeding information on best practices and democratic innovations from abroad into the union’s relevant decisionmaking processes, something that signally fails to happen now.
Third, EU policy circles should draw lessons from the analytical and academic worlds, which have made strides toward moving beyond ethnocentrism in the social sciences, engaging critically with non-Western viewpoints and analytical mindsets, and contesting the “liberal script.” Policy practitioners would benefit from and could contribute to the current recasting of the relationship between the social sciences and area studies, whether on the subject of Europe or other parts of the world. The many scholars committed to this agenda are wrestling with the fact that one’s perspectives are always contextualized: mutual engagement requires not only self-reflexivity—acknowledging that one always speaks from somewhere—but radical decentering—acknowledging the centrality of those speaking from elsewhere.
A final caveat: it is important to clarify what reversing the democratic gaze should
On the contrary, reversing the gaze ought to be part of the EU’s geopolitical narrative in the years to come as systemic competition between democracies and autocracies comes to define the world stage. Giving up on the EU’s asymmetric so-called rules templates and the rescue narrative of yesteryear does not mean relinquishing the ambition of democratic empowerment altogether, in and beyond Europe. Being more open to experiences and ideas from outside Europe could help revive the EU’s external democracy support agenda. European practices ultimately need to reflect this fundamental truth: The right to self-sovereignty and autonomy belongs equally to all citizens of every country around the world.
It is now common to hear the familiar maxim “Physician, heal thyself” used to voice skepticism over the EU’s traditional model of external democracy support amid democratic backsliding in Europe. But this sentiment should not be taken to mean “Physician, care only for yourself.” A better refrain to guide EU democracy policies internally and externally would be: “Physician, look for help from others, even as you seek to help them.”
The authors would like to thank Olga Burlyuk, Ken Godfrey, Thomas Carothers, Tobias Lenz, Mahmoud Javadi, and members of the European Democracy Hub for their input on this article.
Kalypso Nicolaidis is a chair in Global Affairs at the European University Institute’s School of Transnational Governance in Florence, Italy, on leave from the University of Oxford.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.