Many aspects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy are unsettling European governments. Yet one element that has elicited relatively limited attention in Europe is the decisive turn by Trump and his foreign policy team away from the longstanding U.S. stance of actively supporting democracy across the world.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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President Trump’s apparent lack of interest in fostering democracy and human rights globally is a profound challenge for European foreign policy. But it is also an opportunity—and an emergent responsibility.

International Human Rights Day on December 10 saw High Representative Federica Mogherini and other EU leaders make speeches celebrating Europe’s defense of democratic norms across the world. But in fact, the EU is conspicuously not stepping up to offset the United States’ diminished democracy support.

As the United States equivocates in its pro-democracy efforts, reformers around the world are looking increasingly to European democracy support to fill the void. A reinforced European commitment to global democracy could act as an antidote to the EU’s loss of international influence and prestige in recent years. Unfortunately, so far there is little sign that European leaders are particularly interested in seizing this opportunity.

At the EU-Africa summit in November, democracy and human rights were formally on the agenda and European governments welcomed the transition of power away from Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. But in states like Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda the EU is actually increasing its support for authoritarian regimes, both to bear down on radical jihadi groups and stem migration flows to Europe. Amnesty International has just released a report showing how migration projects leave the EU complicit in serious human rights abuses in countries like Libya.

The EU and member state ambassadors have laudably criticized human rights abuses in Egypt, but just a few weeks ago they also signed a new development aid package with the el-Sisi government worth up to €924 million. The EU currently has over €1.3 billion of aid projects in Egypt and remains the country’s largest donor. While the union has fought admirably hard to retain some support to civil society, most European aid goes directly to the Egyptian regime, even as it continues its dramatically authoritarian turn.

The EU also recently held a summit with Central Asian leaders, offering a raft of new cooperation with this region’s incumbent autocrats. The EU collectively and member states individually have struck new security deals with the likes of Saudi Arabia. They have opened new cooperation with Belarus and Azerbaijan. And they have kept well away from pro-democracy protests in Russia and Venezuela.

This is categorically not to say that the EU is doing nothing on democracy support. It is supporting institutional reform in Ukraine and devising ways of protecting human rights defenders from many regimes’ brutal attacks. But there has been no tangible reaction to the shift in U.S. policy. EU democracy policy continues on its own trajectory, with several internal processes in motion seeking to fine-tune the union’s existing policy instruments—useful perhaps, but all unperturbed by the Trump geopolitical whirlwind.

In contrast, the EU has begun to react to other changes in U.S. foreign and security policies. In response to Trump’s ambivalence about the U.S. security umbrella for Europe, the EU has made notable advances in defense and security cooperation. The union has also moved up a gear in its international trade policy, searching for easier processes to conclude commercial deals and protect European economic interests more directly.

The EU has not contemplated any similar changes in the field of democracy and human rights. European leaders criticize Trump’s apparent disregard for democratic norms, but they have not moved to fill the gap left by the United States’ retreat from democracy promotion.

Through its new defense fund, the EU has promised significant extra money for weapons development—guided by a narrative that the EU can no longer be quite so reliant on partnership with the United States. The widely feted PESCO initiative is expected to place upward pressure on member state defense expenditure. Yet the EU has not committed additional funds to help shore up democracy and human rights around the world—not even a small fraction of the new military fund.

Whatever its merits in defending others parts of the liberal order, Germany is still very cautious in the field of democracy support. In a speech last week, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel insisted that Germany should tilt more toward defending short-term interests and away from support for democratic values. Germany’s new “Marshall plan for Africa” promises a great deal of money and diplomatic commitment, but focuses on private sector investment and controlling migration, not on pushing democratic change in African states. German agencies and foundations invest huge amounts of resources in encouraging better “governance” through nonconfrontational means. The German government is, however, still rarely willing to press explicitly for democracy against authoritarian repression.

There have been previous moments when external conditions called strongly for an upgrade in EU democracy support: after 9/11, during the Arab Spring, and following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But the EU has never had to contend with quite such fundamental uncertainty over the core liberal philosophy of the United States, traditionally seen as the leading and most assertive actor in international democracy support. This change is far-reaching enough that it should be generating some fundamental recalculation within EU foreign policy deliberations.

One of the uncommented stories of 2017 is that the United States’ democracy retreat has not had this catalyzing impact on EU geostrategy. One hopes it will do soon, before the consequences become too negatively apparent.