The Ambiguous Role of the EU in the Democraticisation Process in Europe

Article published on Jan. 23, 2003
From the magazine
Article published on Jan. 23, 2003
It is a fortunate thing that in the last 30 years Europe has not merely endured conflicts in the Balkans but has witnessed a number of its countries leave behind decades of authoritarianism in order to embrace democracy with largely positive results.

Democracy is a delicate creature.

Nothing is as volatile as a young democracy since the process of abandoning authoritarianism is an exxtremely complex one. Those who are in power need to be real strategists, they need to breathe life into democracy and legalise parties whilst at the same time quieten down the army, be certain of having the support of the majority of the military leaders as well as the bourgeoisie and a part of the ruling class, and put a stop to the revolutionary forces which inevitably set in motion....

It is difficult for an exterior actor to play a positive role in such a process. In view of past experience (notably Pinochet and Nicaragua) it might be considered for the best that a country in democractic transition manages its own transition without outside influence. Even with the best of intentions an external intervention can be fatal. The Pinochet affair a few years ago higlighted one of the great problems of transitional democracies: that of the pardoning of crimes committed under the previous regime. The leaders of such a transition must chose between a general amnesty which creates the conditions for a national amnesty, whilst enabling calm to be restored, or judicial persecution, which would be indisputably just, but which would problematise the process of transition. Personally, for a number of other reasons I support Garzon's intervention, but the danger it involves should not be forgotten.

Our intention in this article is to ask ourselves what role the European Union plays in these processes. To do this we will restrict ourselves to the European countries which, upon completing the transition to democracy, can enter the EU in the short or medium term.

Affluence and democracy: an attractive model

It is true that the European Union has always been the "club of the rich", but it has also been a club of democracies into which countries considered un-democratic are not admitted. This doctrine has recently taken shape as the Copenhagen criteria but it has always applied.

This dual circumstance, that of marrying wealth and the exclusion of dictatorships, has played a key role in all the democratisation processes in Europe. Why exactly? I would say that there are numerous reasons but that the main one is the democratic system of a said country's bourgeoisie. Wit the exception of its academic sphere, the bourgeoisie and other aristocracies in these countries favour the stillness of repressive dictatorships which allow them to register their powere and do business with ease in contrast to the unpredictability and the turbulence of democracy. The European Union with its possibilities of membership changes the situation completely given the abundant potential for economic growth within its internal market, and this is a vital factor in explaining the support for democracy among these social classes.

We have to be thankful, therefore, for the traditional tendency of European leaders to rally around democracy. However, their ambivalence also needs to be highlighted. If it wishes to enable democratic transition to take place, the EU cannot avoid dialogue with the country concerned, even when it is still governed by a dictatorship. On the contrary, it should make it known that integration is desired but that it cannot accept a regime of that nature, in other words, instigate reforms. In this sense, in affirming that Turkey could not qualify to join the EU not because it is not a fully democratic state, but rather because it is not European, Giscard d'Estaing is taking an isolationist attitude, one by which the EU distances itself from everything that happens in that country.

Generating hope: a dynamic of change which courts danger

If we try observing the phenomenon from the perspective of the people of the country in question we will be able to see another way in which the EU plays a positive role. In general we are dealing with countries whose citizens live in fear, haunted by the blood-stained memory of each previous attempt to live in a democracy. The population tends to accept the situation and to adapt to a conservatism engendered by the repression. However, the EU shows them what their country could become, a rich, modern and democratic nation with its sights set on the future.Through offering the possibility of membership the EU opens the door to a tempting societal model. When this will-to-change has taken root in society, it forms the basis upon which democracy can begin to grow.

However, the expectations which the possibility of integration create are a double-edged sword. If the stakes raised by such hopefulness crash into disillusion the effect can be explosive. In Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria who have not been acccepted on the first wave of enlargement this could easily be the case, leading to a rejection, perhaps not of the EU itself but of the democratic model which the project embodies, so generating a regresssion into authoritarianism. Playing with democracy is like playing with fire, with the aspirations of a whole people and with their thirst for liberty as well as security. The sacrificeswhich the EU requires in integrating the "acquis communautaire", that is the enormous bulk of Euroepan legislation are stupendous for such youthful democracies, not to mention the fact that these standards can be seen as demanding, even aggressive elements imposed from outside.

In all, there are numerous reasons for thinking that the EU represents a positive factor in transitions towards democracy in Europe, yet we should not forget that there can be a flip-side to the coin.

The "freezing" of Democracy

Beyond a general discussion about the democratic nature of a nation a basic question can be raised. Does the EU really have the right to declare that it holds the magic formula for democracy, and to thereby judge what does and what does not constitute a democracy?

This is a worrying question, one which highlights a serious problem which affects all the Member States and which I would call the "freezing" of democracy. In assuming the authority to judge the quality of democracy in which other nations live, the European States take it as read that they live under democratic conditions, which, if not complete are at least satisfactory and that this is something to which the others should aspire. De facto, in view of the advantages afforded by membership of the EU, each European State aspires to emulate this model. But this has a down-side whose consequences cannot yet be estimated, in that each state discounts the possibility of seeking to formulate a new system, more or less adapted to national or local realities. I am not sure whether Porto Alegre is the most interesting democratic experiment in recent years, but it would not surprise me that it arose outside the borders of the EU where the democratic system tends to become paralysed without assuming that it is in need of renewal.

In concluding I would like to recall the fact that such a renewal could come from the EU through the opportunities afforded by the convention for the future of Europe. This may seem paradoxical given that the EU with its hardly democratic methods is percisely one of the principal factors behind the paralysing of the European democratic model, in allowing political leaders in their respective capitals to absolved themselves of responsibility for deicisions in which they had a say in Brussels and which are beyond the control of their nation as well as its elected representatives. With this in mind, for the EU to keep playing a positive role in the democratisation processes anticipated during the coming yeasrs (in particular in the Balkans) the Convention has to be called upon to demonstrate the necessary imagination with which to create a European form of democratic participation which would enable the European model to be unblocked whilst allowing Europe and the Europeans to believe that they are at the forefront of democracy. Because those who believe that democracy is a state are mistaken; democracy is a process, an ideal, and a nation can never be democratic enough, can never be satisfied with itself in that sense. The democratisation process never stops and the mistake of long-established democracies is that of thinking they have reached the summit of the mountain and can rest on their laurels in contemplation of their past successes.