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Democracy support – just rhetoric?

The neighbourhood of the European Union is going through a massive democratic transformation and needs the support of the EU. Delightfully, the EU has reacted to these changes and recognizes the importance and the potential of democracy support. However, there is a long path from rhetoric to action, and the lack of a coherent strategy on the international level poses a challenge to democracy development, noted Sari Varpama of Demo Finland at UN’s democracy day seminar “Democracy and development in the EU’s neighbourhood: what next?”, organised by Demo Finland and the Finnish NGDO Platform to the EU – Kehys.

Need for cohesion

Rilli Lappalainen of Kehys backed Varpama by stating that EU’s foreign policy often undermines the importance of development issues. Speakers asked for cohesion and holistic view for the Union’s democracy and development work.

Pekka Nurminen, representing the information office of the European Parliament, told the audience that EU has already made some major changes in its neighbourhood strategy. Nurminen said that the recent upheavals of the Arabic world have resulted in a switch from passive upkeep of prevailing situation to active assistance focusing on the empowerment of the civil society and the rooting of democratic practices.

Stefan Batory Institute’s Pawel Baginski reminded the listeners about the amount of work ahead by noting that EU’s current chair country Poland has no strategy or official definition for democracy assistance even though it wants to be recognized for actively supporting human rights and democracy.

Also funding issues were brought up in the seminar. Human rights and democracy ambassador Sauli Feodorow was asking for new flexible ways of funding democracy support that often needs to react rapidly to changing situations. Nurminen confirmed Feodorow’s idea right by stating that the current funding tools are only suitable for traditional development projects.

Human rights and civil participation leading path to democracy

Professor of peace and conflict research Tuomo Melasuo emphasized that the key reason for the upheavals was in the ever worsening socio-economic situation of the Arabic countries. According to Melasuo, one of the most important issues on the way to democracy, is the formation of an active and functioning civil society. Also Lappalainen thought that EU should put serious effort in making room for civil organisations.

University of Helsinki researcher Henri Onodera continued by saying that a functional democracy will establish step by step. These steps include the formation of civil organisations, the democratisation of media and the fall of old taboos and ivory tower. Chairman of the Finnish Social Democratic Youth Timo Kontio added that big changes need strong and bold young leaders, whose efforts must be promoted.

The importance of acting locally

In the panel discussion, the participants emphasized the importance of local participation, border crossing and mutual learning. Finnish-Tunisian student Aicha Manai told that Tunisian youth are active and willing to participate in politics, but European help is needed especially in making political parties work. The best way of doing this would be discussion without prejudice and learning from each other.

A board member of Demo Finland Janina Mackiewicz brought up the significance of dialogue that crosses political borders and takes place at the local level. This kind of dialogue will help in establishing trust between the two sides, which is probably the most important single issue of good co-operation according to Onodera.

In conclusion, the seminar brought up the significancy of the civil society’s role and the EU’s potentially remarkable but still vague role in the democracy development. For Europe, it is extremely important to remember that democracy will always spring from local needs and take a local form, thus it can’t be imported but can and must be supported.

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