The next EU budget: the EU should show it means ‘business’ with its commitment to supporting democracy and human rights

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How to support democracy and human rights – both inside the Union and beyond its borders – will be among the most contentious issues in the negotiations of the next EU budget. Internally, the EU faces severe challenges in responding to shrinking political spaces in Poland and Hungary. Externally, not only the international context has become more challenging. Against the backdrop of the ‘migration crisis’, the EU finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile its immediate interests with its longstanding values.

The next EU budget will not provide the silver bullet, but it needs to give clear direction where the EU stands on these issues. EU democracy and human rights support are not only normative considerations that are ‘nice to have’ in case there are no other problems getting in the way. As the largest trading block in the world, and with economies highly dependent on externally sourced inputs, it is evidently in the EU’s own, socio-economic interest to support democratic and inclusive states and societies in its immediate and more distant neighbourhood. Job creation and investment brokering featured prominently in recent EU development policy discussions. Yet increased instability in several African states demonstrate that such investments will not be sustainable if overall conditions for good governance, democracy and human rights are neglected.

Five concrete means can be discerned through which the EU can further democracy, human rights and good governance under the next EU budget.

1. Strengthen consistency across domestic and external policies: The credibility of EU democracy and human rights support abroad depends very much on its domestic performance. The media and justice reforms in Poland and Hungary, the treatment of refugees in different parts of Europe, all put pressure on this credibility. So far, the EU has little means and leverage in supporting democratic reforms within its own borders, not the least because member states can largely veto their own sanctioning.

In last week’s budget proposals, the European Commission recommends to condition the future disbursement of EU cohesion funds to the quality of the rule of law and regulatory framework. In cases where strong deficiencies in the rule of law exist, the Commission opens the possibility to withhold funds to protect the EU’s budget from financial risks. In times of growing Euroscepticism in parts of European societies, it is also a legitimacy issue for the EU to spend money in contexts, where the regulatory framework and basic principles of the rule of law are applied.

At the same time, political conditionality in the EU’s budget has to be part of a broader strategy on how to deal with political situations like in Poland, and needs to acknowledge that any lasting reforms can only be led by domestic stakeholders. The EU faces the challenge to uphold the values that it proclaims underpin its entire project, while at the same time maintaining constructive relationships with those member states that move away from these values.

2. Mainstream the performance-based approach of the neighbourhood policy into the EU’s cooperation with other regions: Support for democracy and human rights should remain a key component in the EU’s external financing instruments. After the Arab Spring, the EU introduced a performance-based approach in its relations with neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe and North-Africa. Countries could receive additional support, in case they make progress in a set of bilaterally agreed political reforms. The EU had previously experimented with doing so in a slightly different format in its relations with Sub-Saharan states between 2007 and 2013. The creation of a single instrument for the ‘Neighbourhood and International’ cooperation now creates the opportunity to reform and extend the performance-based approach to cooperation with all developing regions.

3. Preserve and further increase the financial target for democracy and human rights: The Commission’s proposal for a single instrument for the “Neighbourhood and International Cooperation” will have specific chapters for geographic and thematic cooperation. In both dimensions, support for democracy, human rights and good governance needs to play an important role.

The geographic window should contain a specific target how much money is to be allocated for democracy, human rights and good governance. In the current budget period, the European Parliament and civil society organisations (CSOs) had successfully lobbied for a 15 per cent target to be included in the EU Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI). Studies have shown that this target has contributed to a gradual increase of the funds allocated to democracy and human rights through the EU’s bilateral cooperation with partner countries. For the next EU budget, the target should not only be preserved. It should be increased, e.g. to 20 or 25%, not least to communicate both to EU citizens and beyond that democracy and human rights are of utmost importance to the Union.

4.Maintain the comparative advantages of the EIDHR: In addition, the proposed “Neighbourhood and International Cooperation” instrument will contain a thematic window that will integrate the current European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR). CSOs and parliaments should take a close look at how this instrument is shaping up to ensure that its financial volume is not reduced and that it preserves key advantages of the EIDHR. Compared to the funding for democracy and human rights under the geographic programmes of the DCI, European Development Fund or the European Neighbourhood Instrument, the EIDHR currently allows for more flexibility in supporting human rights activists directly and without direct consent and joint planning with the partner government. Funds can also be mobilized more rapidly.

Creating a single instrument for EU external action has the advantage of streamlining processes and reducing complexity. However, the EU needs to ensure that this streamlining does not come at the expense of support for fundamental values at a time when the EU is one of few international actors left to support this agenda.

5. Ensure that cooperation on migration does not contradict the objective of supporting democracy and human rights: Maybe most importantly, the EU will struggle in presenting a budget and new financing instruments that is both convincing as a package, and free from contradiction in implementation. The EU needs to ensure that it does not substantially increase its funding for those countries where the EU needs cooperation on migration while turning a blind eye on these countries’ human rights situations. Studies have shown that so far financial incentives in many cases have not led to more cooperation on migration but instead soured relations. Instead, the EU should make particular efforts to work with countries on democracy and human rights where it is also engaging within the Migration Partnership Framework.

In conclusion, the next budget should unambiguously convey that the EU does not merely want to project its direct interests abroad, as signaled by recent policy trends such as the External Investment Plan or the Migration Partnership Framework, but also clearly communicate that it means ‘business’ with its commitment to promoting democracy and human rights.

Authors: Christine Hackenesch and Niels Keijzer (DIE)

Photo Courtesy UN Geneva via Flickr

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