In the last decade, democratic pessimism has become overwhelming. Creeping authoritarianism has threatened democracy and become the dominant political trend. But the prevailing gloomy view risks blinding the European Union (EU) and its member states to the likelihood of positive political change and has contributed to a lopsided set of EU policy instruments. The EU has improved the speed and agility of its policy responses to conflicts, emergencies of various kinds, and political crises. But it has not paid the same attention to improving its response mechanisms for democratic openings, even though EU member states agreed in 2019 to “act quickly in response to sharp deteriorations or improvements in the democratic situation of countries.”
Responding better to such openings is a no-brainer in a time of pessimism and nonstop crisis, when the EU would benefit from a more positive vision for its foreign policy. Contrary to what High Representative Josep Borrell said in much-publicized recent speech, the EU does not need to become more Hobbesian and less Kantian—it can often be both.
A Unidimensional Trap
In the early 2000s, an overly optimistic view of democratic development prevailed as processes of democratization proliferated after the end of the Cold War. Today, that picture seems to have been flipped 180 degrees. Optimism has given way to ubiquitous pessimism regarding the future of human rights, the rule of law, and democratic governance. Most commentary sounds strikingly despondent about democracy.
A great deal of this pessimism is warranted: multiple indices have recorded a steady increase in democratic backsliding over the last decade and a majority of the world’s population now lives under nondemocratic regimes. Fears of lower support for democracy among citizens, increased competition from autocracies, and major internal challenges facing democracies are often cited as reasons to worry about the future of democracy as a political system.
But there are reasons to be skeptical of the fully pessimistic narrative. It is likely that the dynamics conditioning world politics sit somewhere in between the two extremes. If supporters of democracy were too optimistic at the turn of the century, today’s doom and gloom often goes too far the other way.
A wide variety of opinions polls and surveys show a rather consistent and solid base of support for democracy around the world. This support has declined in several regions, with specific concerns regarding support among younger generations, but it remains much higher than that for other forms of government. Even if individual polls and surveys are not perfect, the sheer breadth of these different analyses means that the sample size underpinning general support for democracy cannot be ignored.
Data from the World Values Survey show that support for “emancipative” values focused on individual choice and equality has been rising across the globe to the detriment of values focused on conformity and deference. This finding, along with others like it, paints a picture of people slowly but surely turning toward values that provide the social underpinnings for democracy. While the opinions of the public on their own do not dictate the nature of a regime, they are hard to ignore over the long run.
While the model of government in China remains appealing to autocrats around the world for its development successes and centralization of power, it has proved to be very hard to copy or emulate. In addition, the reputation of the model of rentier crony capitalism in Russia has clearly lost appeal in 2022.
Around the world, democracies are facing major social, economic, and political challenges resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, rising inflation, climate change, increased government debt, and rising energy costs. But autocracies are facing these same challenges, and any resulting protests are much more dangerous to those in power in hybrid or authoritarian regimes. Even if they begin with a specific economic or localized grievance, they can morph into broader uprisings against the regime. Recent protests in Iran, Kazakhstan, and Sri Lanka are typical in this regard.
The framing of democratic recession has become so unidimensional that it risks overshadowing political openings with democratic potential when they do occur. This matters for the EU’s policy preparedness. Influenced by the narrative of democratic decline and scarred by the failed Arab Spring, the EU and its member states are not as well prepared for such openings as they should be.
Improvements on Crises
In recent decades, the European Union has taken steady strides in improving the flexibility and speed of its response to crises. At the macro level, it created the Integrated Political Crisis Response arrangements in 2013 to provide a more streamlined framework of response with different levels of coordination. This is used for crises of such significance as to require high-level political coordination such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The EU also has a complex set of mechanisms for crisis management more generally, including the Civil Protection Mechanism, which includes the Emergency Response Coordination Centre run by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO), the European Commission’s rapid alert system and coordination mechanism ARGUS, and agencies like Europol and Frontex. When it comes to crises abroad, the European External Action Service (EEAS) plays a key role through its Crisis Response System, which includes an EU Situation Room, and monitors and coordinates between different EU institutions, member states, and partners.
The EU has also made progress in recent years in funding its capabilities for tackling crises abroad. While a majority of this crisis funding understandably goes to humanitarian aid through DG ECHO, the EU has had a dedicated budget line for rapid reaction to crises since 2001. Over the course of various iterations of this instrument, the funding possibilities for projects in specific countries or regions have gradually expanded in scope and increased in flexibility, allowing for longer projects and quicker contracting. During the 2014–2020 budget cycle, the EU provided support totaling 2.3 billion euros ($2.4 billion) under the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), including for crisis response, crisis preparedness, and addressing global threats. EU staff were thus able to use the IcSP in anticipation of potential crises, including those linked to specific political junctures such as elections. Given the comparative swiftness of this project contracting, this filled an important gap, even if it represented a very small portion of total funding.
From Crisis to Positive Frames
In short, in the last decade, the EU has significantly increased its capacity and devoted substantial resources to its ability to monitor and react to crises around the world. Yet, the overwhelming emphasis has been on dealing with negative events and threats rather than on any type of political opening or positive democratic opportunities.
A charitable interpretation of this is that there have simply been far fewer opportunities for positive political change in the last decade as the world has become more autocratic and the number of crises has increased. But that hides many individual instances of political openings in all regions of the world. Even if the overall trend in global democracy is worsening, many moments of democratic potential have occurred in recent years. (Table 1 lists forty-two of these.)
|Table 1: Democratic Openings From 2011—2021|
|2011/2012||Libya||Fall of dictatorship.||Increase|
|2011||Thailand||Peaceful transfer of power to the opposition party.||Increase|
|2011||Côte d’Ivoire||New president after civil strife.||Increase|
|2011||Niger||Credible national and local elections.||Increase|
|2012||Georgia||First orderly transfer of power to the opposition.||Increase|
|2012||Senegal||Free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections that resulted in a peaceful rotation of power.||Increase|
|2012||Lesotho||Free and fair parliamentary elections that resulted in a peaceful rotation of power.||Increase|
|2012||Myanmar||Successful participation of the main opposition party in parliamentary by-elections.||Increase|
|2012||Malawi||Peaceful power transfer to new president.||Increase|
|2013||Bhutan||Peaceful rotation of power after the opposition won parliamentary elections for the first time.||Increase|
|2013||Mali||Civilian government was restored through presidential and parliamentary elections.||Increase|
|2013||Nepal||Free and fair Constitutional Assembly elections led to a new majority and change in government.||No change|
|2013/2014||Madagascar||First free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections since 2009 coup.||Increase|
|2014||Ukraine||Revolution followed by new elections.||Increase|
|2014||Fiji||First free and fair elections since 2006 coup.||Increase|
|2014||Guinea-Bissau||First free and fair elections since 2012 coup.||Increase|
|2014||Indonesia||New president elected in vote.||No change|
|2015||Nigeria||Democratic change of power as the opposition gained executive power through elections.||Increase|
|2015||Sri Lanka||Protests leading to the ouster of increasingly authoritarian and divisive president.||Increase|
|2015||Argentina||Opposition candidate won the presidency.||No change|
|2015||Burkina Faso||First national elections since the coup ousting long-time president.||Increase|
|2017||Ecuador||Transfer of power to a new president.||Increase|
|2017||Timor-Leste||Free and fair elections led to a smooth transfer of power.||Increase|
|2017||Uzbekistan||New administration took small steps toward reform following death of dictator.||Increase|
|2017||The Gambia||First democratic transfer of power following ECOWAS intervention.||Increase|
|2017||Angola||Elections that brought in a new administration.||Increase|
|2018||Ethiopia||Passing of power to a new reform-minded prime minister.||Increase|
|2018||Malaysia||Transfer of power to an opposition alliance.||Increase|
|2019||Mauritania||Credible presidential election that resulted in the country’s first peaceful transfer of power, signaling a departure from a history of military coups.||Increase|
|2019||Sudan||Protests leading to the ouster of the president and the negotiation of a power-sharing deal.||Increase|
|2019||Kosovo||Transfer of power to main opposition parties.||Increase|
|2019||Ukraine||Orderly transfer of power to a new president.||Increase|
|2019||Armenia||Peaceful transfer of power following a revolution.||Increase|
|2020||Malawi||Successful rerun of the flawed 2019 elections and transfer of power to the opposition.||Increase|
|2020||Montenegro||Elections that resulted in the first transfer of power to the opposition since independence.||Increase|
|2020||Seychelles||Open and competitive presidential election, resulting in the country’s first transfer of power to an opposition party.||Increase|
|2021||Honduras||Defeat of president followed by peaceful transfer of power to the opposition.||Increase|
|2021||Moldova||Snap parliamentary elections that resulted in peaceful transfer of power.||Increase|
|2021||Peru||Successful election of a new president and parliament.||Increase|
|2021||Zambia||Transfer of power to the opposition presidential candidate.||Increase|
|Source: Compiled from data from Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project.|
Table 1 lists only political openings that led to a change in the executive branch of government, paving the way for easier cooperation for foreign actors like the EU who typically need to work in partnership with the executive. They do not capture other increases in democracy that may have resulted from actions by incumbent leaders for different ideological or strategic reasons. Nor do they take into account moments of acute political pressure put by protests on incumbents who nonetheless remained in power. If such cases were included, the list would be longer.
Not all of these forty-two openings led to positive change for fundamental rights or democracy, but each presented some opportunity for it. Political openings are by nature short and contingent moments, so acting fast is vital. However, the EU found it hard to react in several of these instances, which reduced the chance of democratic success.
During the Arab Spring, the EU did not activate the precursor to the Integrated Political Crisis Response arrangements. Indeed, much of the current structure of the EEAS’ Crisis Response Mechanism was set up as a consequence of these political events, given their profound impact on stability in the region. The failures of the Arab Spring have contributed to a much stronger focus on the negative side of political change and a recognition that political openings can lead to other crises. But, when looking back, EU officials often note that the inability to react swiftly undermined the EU response to the Arab Spring.
That is not to say the EU did not support countries where openings did occur. It backed Tunisia with a higher amount of aid per capita compared to the country’s neighbors, increased the tariff quota for olive oil in 2016 and 2017 (a major Tunisian export), and generally provided an upgraded form of cooperation. The same could be said in the case of Ukraine after the Euromaidan and of several other countries. But in general, when money has been made available, it has often come too late to have a tangible, real-world impact. And as the examples above show, several of these political openings have turned sour within a short period of time, meaning there is a time lag between reform openings and EU support.
At present, the EU does not have a standard global mechanism for addressing such opportunities quickly as there is no policy or specific funding stream for dealing with political openings on a systematic basis. The EU would be much better prepared for such opportunities if there were a clearer political agreement, building on the 2019 Council Conclusions on Democracy, that it must act fast when they arise. This should be backed up by a funding stream reserved for political openings that would allow for much faster reactions in support of democracy. The speed with which the EU now reacts to negative events shows that this is possible if it has funding readily available.
In Armenia, following the Velvet Revolution in the spring of 2018, the United States funded a rapid-response program that started in June of that year. The EU by contrast was not able to fund any democracy-related projects in the country until November, just weeks before the first post-revolution elections in December. This was partly because, as during the Arab Spring, it had no funds that it could easily mobilize for such an opening.
The EU has specific mechanisms and funding lines it can activate to make a difference when crises erupt, but these cannot be activated in the same way for political openings. In cases of the latter, it can be creative by assembling funds from different streams to support democracy and directing them to a country, but this is cumbersome and far from ideal. For example, this is what the EU did in Sudan after the 2019 revolution and it was hampered by delays to implementation by certain partners.
A lack of existing democracy funding streams is common in EU dealings with countries with authoritarian regimes, and a global mechanism would be helpful for reacting to any political openings there. For example, when president Yahya Jammeh was deposed in the Gambia in 2017, the EU had no discernable democracy funding in place for the country and therefore could not react with appropriate speed due to the need to reorient funds.
Looking at the different political openings in Table 1, what stands out is that the EU often made efforts to support new governments, usually with a time lag, but also that this support was often not discernibly different from what had come before. For example, following the change of president in Mauritania in 2019, the EU continued with essentially the same programs despite the fact that this change presented the bloc with a chance to step up its engagement. In the current geopolitical climate, the EU needs to move beyond seeing political openings as a chance to slightly upgrade cooperation with a country. New times call for an updated approach.
From Change to Action
For the EU to have a stronger impact during windows for potential prodemocratic change, it must react quickly through its financial instruments but also through diplomatic and trade channels. Reacting fast is not only about money. While diplomatic reactions can often be slow at the EU level given the need to coordinate between the member states, a specific trade and aid policy focus on democratic openings could help to encourage a quicker and more emphatic response. In addition to rapid democracy funding, having broader, readily accessible financing or trade benefits to offer such cases would also help to encourage a diplomatic reaction as the speed and nature of the response is contingent upon the tools of those reacting.
Under its Global Europe financial instrument agreed to in 2021, the EU created a rapid-response pillar (3.18 billion euros, or $3.36 billion) as well as a flexibility cushion for emerging challenges and priorities (9.53 billion euros, or $10.1 billion). It also retained a thematic budget line dedicated to conflict prevention, peacebuilding, crisis preparedness, and emerging threats with the Peace, Stability and Conflict Prevention program (910 million euros, or $960 million) to succeed the IcSP.
The legal basis for these three budget lines refers repeatedly to crisis. The rapid response pillar even refers explicitly to funding when democracy is under threat. However, the possibility of a rapid response to a democratic opening is not mentioned in the regulation establishing Global Europe itself. This is important not only for legal and financial reasons but also because the narrative matters deeply.
At a time of nonstop crisis, the EU needs a more positive vision for its foreign policy. Its diplomats will be more likely to be able to respond successfully to political openings if financial assistance is already clearly earmarked and available. The Global Europe regulation contains language flexible enough to allow earmarking funding for such openings. When opportunities for supporting human rights, democracy, and rule of law come up, EU diplomats need to be in a position where providing rapid support is straightforward rather than a political or administrative headache.
There are other steps that could also be taken to facilitate action. For instance, the EEAS’s Crisis Response System could better integrate looking out for positive opportunities into its monitoring capacity. Trade exemptions or temporary tariff reductions should be a fundamental element of any response, as could debt relief in partnership with other multilateral actors. The EU often used leftover funds from its previous European Neighbourhood Instrument to reward reformers; for example, in Tunisia and Ukraine through the SPRING program and other so-called umbrella-funds. This needs to be continued under the Global Europe instrument at the global level—for fragile democratic changes to endure, democratic governments should be assisted in their duty of delivering material benefits to citizens.
The United States has announced its intention to provide greater support to democratic “bright spots” in delivering developmental outcomes in addition to bolstering its ability to react more quickly and flexibly to support democracy. The current geopolitical climate requires the EU to also refine its support. In her latest State of the Union speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen placed a significant emphasis on democracy. She stated: “This is the time to invest in the power of democracies. This work begins with the core group of our like-minded partners: our friends in every single democratic nation on this globe . . . We should strive to expand this core of democracies.” The EU’s ability to do just that depends on it creating tools to better support reform and using them as quickly as possible.
History has often shown that prevailing sentiment in societies and politics can be seriously mistaken. We usually fail to prepare for the unexpected, from the financial crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic. To mitigate this, policymakers and analysts should be less pessimistic about the future of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Not all of the needles point toward despondency—citizens continue to successfully demand greater accountability and participation in political affairs.
And even if optimism about the future of democracy is misplaced, the last decade of autocratization has included a large number and variety of political openings, showing that moments of further opportunities are likely in the coming decade.
In order to make the most of such openings, domestic and foreign actors need to be ready to act fast as these moments can be fleeting. In recent years, the EU has made important strides in dealing with democratic decline and in preparing for crises, and so have many European governments. But at present quick action usually comes in response to moments of danger, conflict, crisis and disaster, rather than to democratic openings. For the EU, crises can lead to opportunities, while opportunities bring the fear of crisis.
The EU will be better able to support positive political openings if it takes a clear decision that it should act fast and emphatically when they occur. The speed with which it reacts to crises shows that the hurdles of coordination between member states are not insurmountable, especially if there is specific funding to support the reaction. At a time when the EU is searching for ways to become more proactive internationally, setting up ways to better support political openings should be at the top of its list of priorities.
The author thanks Elena Ventura, Richard Youngs, and European officials for their valuable input.
Ken Godfrey is the executive director of the European Partnership for Democracy.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.