Written by Ionel Zamfir,
As democracy faces multiple challenges, the EU is stepping up its support
As a community of like-minded states, the EU is based on certain fundamental values, such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The Union strives to realise these both internally and externally, and they guide all its policies. In line with commitments enshrined in its Treaties to pursue these values, the EU has developed specific policies to support democracy in the world. Moreover, the Union aims to integrate the pursuit of peace and democracy in all its other external actions, such as external trade, development policy, enlargement policy, neighbourhood policy, its common foreign and security policy, as well as its political and diplomatic relations with third countries and multilateral institutions.
The EU has established a strong reputation as an organisation guided by the normative vision of a democratic world, and as en effective actor in supporting democratisation on the European continent and beyond, through its democracy and electoral assistance, its electoral observation missions in the world and many other actions (to find out more about this, see a recent EPRS briefing: Democracy support in EU external policy, March 2018). Strengthening peace and democracy globally has never been an easy task. The EU recognises that it can only play the role of assisting, since the ownership of democratisation is exclusively for domestic forces. Today, EU action takes place in an increasingly difficult environment. Restrictions imposed by authoritarian governments against civil society and human rights defenders, which have been among the EU main partners in matters of democracy, require new ways to support democracy.
The EU has leveraged the special partnerships it has established with various groups of countries such as candidate states for EU accession, countries from its neighbourhood, and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (the ACP group) to support democratisation. It has acted mainly through dialogue and assistance, but also imposed sanctions and restricted its development aid in response to major crises that have seriously undermined democracy in third countries. For example, according to an EPRS briefing that analyses EU democracy support to African countries (EU support to democracy and good governance in Africa, November 2017), EU assistance has had a major positive impact, despite the specific challenges and multiple shortcomings of political systems on the African continent.
An important challenge for democracy today in Europe and abroad is how to tackle citizens’ dissatisfaction with democratic systems. Citizens often complain that their voice is not heard, and that they have no meaningful opportunity for political participation. The new digital environment provides plenty of opportunities yet to be exploited that could broaden citizens’ participation in political life and decision-making, such as social media, deliberative software and e-voting systems. According to an EPRS study that explores the potential of digital tools for fostering e-democracy (Prospects for e-democracy in Europe, February 2018), ‘E-participation and in a broader sense e-democracy – the practice of democracy with the support of digital media in political communication and participation – are seen as a possible remedy for democratic shortcomings at European level (as well as at local and national levels)’.
Digital tools can also strengthen citizens’ trust in the electoral process, which is central to the functioning of democracy. The EU is one of the leading organisations conducting electoral observation missions around the world, and the European Parliament plays a central role in these. An EPRS briefing (“Digital technology in elections: Efficiency versus credibility?”, September 2018) analyses the advantages and risks of using digital technologies in elections all over the world. For example, online databases and digital registration of voters hugely facilitate the task of creating and managing accurate and up-to-date electoral rolls, an important challenge in less developed countries, whose citizens often lack reliable identity documents. For some aspects of election management, digitalisation is more controversial. Electronic voting machines count votes quickly and accurately, but the intangible nature of digital processes makes detecting tampering more difficult. Even more controversial is the idea of internet voting. While they could help to reverse a worrying decline in voter turnout across the world, current technology does not allow internet voting systems to be fully secured against cyber-attacks.
The increasing digitalisation of the public sphere not only brings benefits with regard to citizens’ political participation. Forces hostile to liberal democracy use new communication channels to disseminate fake news and disinformation. According to an EPRS briefing (Foreign influence operations in the EU, July 2018), social media today enable potentially disruptive messages to spread instantaneously. Disinformation is an increasingly diverse, hybrid ‘toolbox’ at the disposal of authoritarian state actors. The dissemination of deliberately false information by non-state and state actors can be used to undermine citizens’ faith in democratic systems and in the EU as a democratic organisation (such as Pro-Kremlin information campaigns, or the Brexit campaigns that depicted the EU as an authoritarian structure insensitive to citizens’ concerns). In response, the European Union and the European Parliament are stepping up efforts to tackle online disinformation ahead of the European elections in 2019.
“Digital technology in elections: Efficiency versus credibility?”, EPRS Briefing, Martin Russel, Ionel Zamfir, September 2018
Democracy in Africa: Power alternation and presidential term limits, EPRS Briefing, Ionel Zamfir, April 2016
Democracy support in EU external policy, EPRS Briefing, Ionel Zamfir, March 2018
Disinformation, ‘fake news’ and the EU’s response, EPRS ‘At a glance’ note, Naja Bentzen, May 2018
EU support to democracy and good governance in Africa, EPRS Briefing, Ionel Zamfir, November 2017
Foreign influence operations in the EU, EPRS Briefing, Naja Bentzen, July 2018
Prospects for e-democracy in Europe. Study summary, EPRS STOA External Study, February