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Democracy calls for defenders – but who cares?

Democracy – a fallacy, just an empty word? Not according to Antonella Valmorbida, Secretary General of European Association of Local Democracies (ALDA).

“The EU was born from the ashes of a disastrous lack of democracy, and now we must say it loud and clear, upholding the principles of democracy must be the message the EU sends the world”, she she said speaking in front of an eager audience at the Visitor Center of the Parliament of Finland.

Ms. Valmorbida, who in addition to leading the European Association for Local Democracy (ALDA) currently holds the Chair of the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), gave a speech at a seminar hosted by Demo Finland on October 4th. The seminar, “Who cares about democracy” focused on just that – discussing what will happen to European democracy support as the external action funding instrument of the EU is undergoing reforms, and the role Finland could play when it holds the EU presidency in 2019.

When talking about democracy it is often stated that it cannot be exported into other countries, but that it can and should be supported. Ms. Valmorbida, however, sees things a bit differently. It is true, she says, that exporting a European model of democracy is impossible, simply because there is no one system of democracy. There are as many ways of democracy as there are states, but this does not mean that the EU should or could not export some of the basic pillars of democracy, such as freedom of speech, the right to assemble and protest, the right to vote and so forth.

“Democracy is not having a Kalashnikov pointed at your head when you go vote and this is a basic value we should export”, she said.

Democracy, who cares, EU, MFF, ALDA,

“The EU should be brave and state clearly that development support should be linked to democracy”, said Antonella Valmorbida in her speech in Helsinki. Photo: Paula Mitchell


A peek behind the curtain and EU jargon

Mr. Ken Godfrey, Executive Director of EPD, also gave his remarks at the seminar. Where Ms. Valmorbida discussed democracy and the EU’s role in supporting it from a value-based point of view, Mr. Godfrey’s presentation got down to the concrete reforms that the funding instrument is undergoing.

The major reform in the proposal for the new Multi-Annual Funding Framework (MFF) has to do with combining all external action funding under a single instrument, the NDICI. Or, translated from EU jargon, the Neighbourhood, Development & International Cooperation Instrument. In it, funding for external action is divided between thematic and geographic pillars, and what could be bad news for democracy support, the existing European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) will cease to exist.

Though the proposal includes guarantees that work for democracy will retain central space, according to Mr. Godfrey one of the major problems with the proposal is its lack of clarity on the scope of democracy support. The current proposal for a single instrument has much less information than EIDHR, which has also allowed for democracy support and human rights work in non-EU states without the need for approval of national authorities.

Democracy support crucial for the prosperity of the EU

But why is democracy support so important and why should the EU follow the recommendations EPD has written down in a statement with other civil society organizations?

“Because, aside from the obvious arguments based on the rights of individuals and communities that are protected and respected under democratic systems, we believe that supporting democracy is in the long-term interest of the EU and its Member States. The world has changed a great deal in recent years, and for the continued security and prosperity of the EU it is crucial that accountable and inclusive political systems become more prominent everywhere”, Mr. Godfrey answered.

This is also why EPD is conducting a review of European democracy support policies which will provide some answers for how the EU can support democracy outside Europe but also within the EU. The review will look at technical issues related to programming but also review how the policies can be improved, and hopefully the EU will utilize it to tackle the rising challenges to democracy within and outside its borders.

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Mr. Godfrey thinks the time is right for reviewing democracy support in the EU and calls for Finland to take action as it holds the EU Presidency during the latter half of 2019. Photo: Paula Mitchell

European democracy does not reign supreme

The audience was eager to engage in the discussion, and not all remarks were purely positive. Critical comments were heard on the EU’s double standards when it comes to claiming to be a defender of democracy and yet letting money take precedence for example in the form of dealing in arms with non-democratic states.  Another participant raised the point, that EU has the tendency to think that its version of democracy is if not the only at least the best, and it should not.

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“Europe should not look down on other democracies, be they in Africa, Asia or anywhere in the world.” Photo: Paula Mitchell

“You are absolutely right. We shouldn’t preach what we don’t practice. If we don’t take democracy and human rights seriously we can’t be credible in demanding others should”, answered Ms. Janina Hasenson, Legislative Secretary at the Unit for Human Rights Policy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.

In her view there has been a surprising development within the EU to a direction, where the Member States don’t see eye to eye on human rights questions. The rights of women and girls and those of sexual and other minorities, for example, are now up for debate – a change for the worse that has come about in the past few years.

“The EU cannot agree on certain human rights issues and therefore cannot speak loudly for them, it does not have a unified voice. That’s why Finland must figure out how to step up and say that the basis of human rights and democracy – the values the EU is built on – cannot be eroded”, said Ms. Hasenson.

To democracy and beyond?

Yet, just as Mr. Godfrey, Ms. Hasenson thinks that the Finnish EU presidency is an excellent opportunity to influence and advocate. In the MFF, too, she also sees the positives. According to her, democracy and human rights will run through all actions as cross-cutting themes even though there is no specific funding reserved for them.

“In the best-case scenario, the new MFF will strengthen the EU’s work on human rights and democracy”, she concluded.

Whether this will be the case remains to be seen, but as Mr. Godfrey stated, democracy support organizations will continue to lobby for democracy to be at the crux of the EU’s External Actions. In her closing remarks at the seminar Demo Finland’s Chair, Christian Democrat MP Päivi Räsänen also emphasized that Finland should take a pioneering role in this and have democracy as its spear point in the upcoming presidency. A goal that Demo Finland will gladly focus its efforts on.

Read more about Demo’s work for democracy here!

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