EU Partnerships and Democratic Sustainability

 Michelle Pace

The track record of EU democracy promotion prompts rethinking of how cross-regional relations can facilitate democratic sustainability in the Arab Mediterranean.

March 22, 2023

The EU and its Southern Neighborhood

This commentary approaches democratic sustainability from a cross-regional perspective. It provides an overview of limitations in the European Union’s ‘Southern Partnership’ with the Arab region. Democracy promotion needs to be re-examined. The new SHAPEDEM-EU research project seeks to do just that.

In 1991, the Treaty of the European Union, Article 2, declared the EU’s intentions “to assert its identity on the international scene, in particular through the implementation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy”. One of the main pillars of this emerging EU foreign policy agenda has been the development of democratic institutions in the states neighboring the Union. With the launch of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in 1995, the EU explicitly announced its role as an external democratizer in its southern neighborhood. But the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and the electoral victory of Hamas put this agenda to its ultimate test. Hamas was first added to the EU’s terror list (created after the attacks of September 11, 2001) in 2003. Institutional paralysis and diplomatic rituals shaped the EU’s decision to sanction Hamas after the latter’s success in the 2006 Palestinian elections.

The Arab uprisings of 2010/2011 amply highlighted that the EU’s actions in the southern neighborhood favored regimes and practices that ultimately proved intolerable to a broad stratum of Arab peoples. Yet in spite of declarations of mea culpa and a recognition on the part of the EU that “assistance is requested; interference is eschewed,” the EU does not seem to have been through a process of unlearning its old ways when it comes to supporting political reforms in its southern Mediterranean neighborhood.

Introducing SHAPEDEM-EU

It is precisely this continued performance, preventing the EU from being a creative democratizer, that a new Horizon Europe project – SHAPEDEM-EU – takes to task. In this 3-year project, which kicked off in Berlin in October 2022, we conceptualize democracy and democracy support as performative practices. That is, enactments of the political that do something unexpected, incongruous or transgressive to a discursive field, but always from within formations of power. Furthermore we take democratic enactments as having the capacity to defamiliarize taken-for-granted assumptions, to play with incongruity and trouble power. Thus, with our ongoing conceptual work, we believe that such democracy enactments have the potential to create oppositional subjectivities and enhance a sense of political agency, potentially placing regimes at risk.

However, democracy practices do not escape or stand outside relations of power, but are immanent to them.

Within SHAPEDEM-EU we therefore do not assume a priori that democracy enactments are necessarily critical or emancipatory: Neither are such enactments merely re-iterative, but remain empirically open and curious to the specificity of ways democracy and democracy support may work with and unsettle power. Thus, our work necessitates that we explore HOW (in the past, present and future) incumbent regimes in the EU’s southern neighborhood may allow for a limited space of (democratic) dissent to project a more modern or liberal identity abroad. We also look at  how regimes may tolerate limited critique to the extent that it operates as a safety valve in lieu of more dangerous/challenging forms of political engagement. Thus, in SHAPEDEM-EU we sustain a focus on any permitted spaces for civil society in each of our cases, countries in  the EU’s southern and eastern neighborhoods. These include Armenia, Georgia, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia and Ukraine. These permitted spaces include humorous practices. For example, the manner in which cartoonists are allowed to observe and depict regimes’ practices and their capacity to appropriate such humor. Lebanon, for instance, is a relatively ‘liberal’ society with ample room of maneuver for civil society groups. In its semi-democratic confessional political order, power is divided among political sects, creating a strong patron-client system, but a very weak state.

New Questions for Cross-Regional Exchange

In such a context we ask: How do democracy enactments unfold? With what implications for citizens’ political agency and regimes’ projected identities? What does this mean in terms of the EU’s potential to un-learn/de-learn/ and create the necessary political willingness to engage in a truly sustainable democracy support agenda that responds to the needs and wishes of the people of the southern and eastern neighborhoods? An acknowledgement – on the part of the EU and its key operators – of the necessity to embark on a democracy learning loop[MP1]  process will be a good start. Another important recognition will be that the EU must invest sufficient time and capacities in such a learning process. A democracy learning loop must be open to local experiences and democratic practices. In this way, skepticism of the EU and democracy can be met with  open-mindedness. Central to this exercise is a de-centering of predominantly Western European accounts of “core norms” related to peace, liberty, democracy, rule of law, and civil rights. Thereby, the EU can move beyond previous binary approaches to democracy support. It can overcome the hierarchical relationship between “democratizers” (the EU) and “democratizees” (the neighborhoods). This is by no means an easy feat. Respective de/un-learning is challenging as it requires the creation of new intellectual nodes that reject previous baseline assumptions. 

 [MP1]Ref: Chapter 23.  “On EU–Arab Democratisation: Towards a Democratic “Learning Loop”” by
Larbi Sadiki & Layla Saleh