EU External Democracy Action In A New Geopolitical Reality

Remarks by the EU Special Representative, Eamon Gilmore,
at the opening session of the Multi-stakeholder Conference
and launch of Recommendations Report

EU´s External Democracy Action In A New Geopolitical Reality

hosted by the Swedish EU-Presidency and International IDEA


Good morning Madam Moderator, State Secretary, Secretary General, Ambassadors, Representatives of EU Member States, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Firstly, let me thank the organisers, the Swedish EU Presidency and International IDEA, for organising this event and inviting me to participate. I also wish to commend Sweden for the high priority it has always given to democracy support, and indeed I recall the previous Swedish EU Presidency in 2009,  when the EU’s first-ever Council Conclusions on democracy support were adopted.

What I want to share with you today draws on my work as the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, but also on a lifetime of work as a member of parliament and member of the government, in a trade union, working with many civil society organisations and campaigns. My title is Special Representative for Human Rights. But you cannot talk about human rights without addressing the issue of democracy. In many ways, human rights and democracy are two wings of the same bird.

This approach is reflected in all of the key European Union policies and actions. The main basis of our work on human rights and democracy is the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. Back in 2020, when the European Commission and the High Representative put forward that Action Plan, they stated that: “The time is ripe for the EU to deliver a new geopolitical agenda on human rights and democracy”. In other words, that the EU will advance its global leadership on both, human rights and democracy in tandem, and that this agenda will be front and centre in the relations that the EU pursues with third countries. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in our strategic interest. It makes us all safer if countries are more stable, secure and protect the rights of their people.

Today, in a rapidly changing world, this commitment is more relevant than ever. The Action Plan’s commitment to deliver a geopolitical agenda is not just in words. The EU and its Members States are the largest providers of democracy support in the world. We spent 14 billion EUR in the period 2014-2019 according to the OECD’s Official Development Assistance Data.

In about three weeks, we will mark one year since Russia launched its senseless war of aggression against Ukraine. As Oleksandra Matviichuk, the President of the Centre for Civil Liberties, one of the laureates of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, rightly pointed out in her Nobel lecture, this war is not one between two countries.  It is a war between authoritarianism and democracy. It is Ukraine’s battle to pursue a democratic path that is at the core of what is at stake in the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

In recent years, we have also seen other examples of brutal clashes between democracy and autocracy. More than a year ago, the Taliban forced Afghanistan to reverse from its democratic achievements, leading the country, at high speed, back to the dark ages. We have seen this too in the developments in Belarus and Myanmar.

Ando so, when I look at the world and ask about democracy, I’m seeing two ends of the spectrum. On one end is the form of liberal democracy with the kind of systems and the levels of democracy that we have here in the European Union. At the other end of the spectrum, are absolute autocracies, which do not even pretend to be democratic and don’t have the aspiration to transition to democracy anytime soon.

Between those two ends there is a broad mix countries in-between, neither perfect democracies nor totally oppressive autocracies. Some of them are nominal democracies with elections, but where the opposition is often imprisoned or in some way unable to contest elections and others who are struggling to establish democratic systems.

And while our attention, and rightly so, is on the most blatant assaults on democratic values and human rights such as in Ukraine, Afghanistan or Myanmar, I think that we need a stronger focus on the countries in this in-between space; where democracy actors can do more, because this really is the battleground for democracy.

You referred to the issue of humility, Kevin. I think that the EU’s Member States, in many cases, have had a difficult history and journey to democracy. And we understand how challenging this is and how difficult sometimes it can be for things to change. And because of that, when we work on democracy with others, we ought to do it with a high degree of humility and, indeed, experience.

All over the world, in the course of my work, I am seeing patterns of regression, for example, on civil society space. And the pattern is, usually, that it starts with a requirement that the civil society organisations have to register. And if they don’t fulfil the very often vague and complex registration requirements, then they find themselves breaking the law and they are declared illegal, and sometimes shut down. Also, they are required to confine their activities as a civil society organisation to the original mandate of that organisation. So, a civil society organisation working on water and sanitation projects, they move to the area of education or advocacy, or decide to make recommendations in relation to the legislation, then they are outside of their mandate.  Then, the issue of funding arises, and if any percentage comes from outside of the country, there is then an allegation that there is foreign funding, they are foreign agents. And before you know it, they are coming under anti-terrorism legislation.

The second area of deterioration relates to free media. The most obvious ways, of course, in which media can be suppressed, are censorship, withdrawal of the licence, Internet shutdown. But more likely, the suppression is through the intimidation of journalists, physical attacks or sometimes even killings of journalists. In recent times, much of the intimidation of journalists is online.

Another area that I think we need to look at is a situation of lawyers. In the course of my work, I meet many lawyers who have themselves been human rights defenders. But increasingly I am meeting lawyers who are simply being prevented from doing their jobs, who tell me they are being removed from cases, being intimidates, and in some cases disbarred. I recently sat down with a disbarred Crimean Tatar lawyer. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 until recently, she used to represent long imprisoned Tatar human rights defenders and journalists. Now, unable to practice law, she struggles to make a living.

As you know, the EU’s toolbox on civic space, media freedom and justice is rich. As the world’s challenges multiply, our support should continue to be ever more flexible, accessible and timely. And the good thing is, we know a lot about how to do it. 2023 marks 10 years since the EU institutions and the Member States decided to set up an independent grant making organisation, the European Endowment for Democracy, to provide quick demand driven support to pro-democracy civil society organisations, movements, individual activists and independent media. Also, the EU’s 2021-2027 Global Programme for Human Rights and Democracy worth 1,5 billion EUR provides for greater flexibility than its predecessor, the EIDHR.

We also invest heavily in the electoral integrity, and that makes us a globally recognised and credible actor in international election observation, with over 200 missions deployed since the year 2000. Fortunately, in 2022 the deployment of electoral missions returned to a pace comparable to that pre-COVID. Today our observers are on the ground in Nigeria, and shortly missions will commence in Sierra Leone and Paraguay.

The latest addition to the EU’s democracy toolbox is the Team Europe Democracy initiative, which has been addressed by Commissioner Urpilainen, and which allows the EU and Member States to work even more closely together.

And you will recall, those who are familiar with the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy that the fifth pillar of the Action Plan is on working together. And I think there is considerable untapped potential in doing things closer together, also by joining up with civil society. After all, in his first blog entry of this year, the High Representative has encouraged us to be more proactive, creative and innovative when it comes to human rights, which, I think, applies equally to the issue of democracy.

But I think we also need address the corrosion of democracy, which is taking place not only in the in-between countries but also at home, in our own democracies. That corrosion manifests itself in many ways. One is through the whole issue of polarisation. What I think we are seeing really is a transition; the outworking of what digital transformation is doing to politics both within individual countries and globally. That is why the EU promotes inclusive and representative decision-making and a deliberative and participative model of democracy. Citizens’ assembly models and the recent Forum on the Future of Europe are good examples of what can be done. But we also have to look at ways in which the digital transformation itself can be used more effectively and innovatively, to broaden the constituency, to reignite the sense of ownership for citizens. Because I think in many ways we are really only playing catch-up in the further digitalising world.

The second example I would cite is in relation to democracies to deliver. In the course of my work around the world, what I hear more and more is a questioning of democracy itself as the most effective way of getting things done, and sometimes a questioning of its relevance to the real lives of people. In that context, we cannot treat the democracy issue without looking at social and economic realities on the ground. And particularly, the issues of inequality, especially with among young people, such as the precariousness of employment contracts, the difficulty in accessing housing, public services, and in making a decent living. The EU has already stepped up its work on economic, social and cultural rights, but I believe we need to be even more proactive in this area.

I really welcome this conference. I welcome the report that you have produced, which I think will contribute enormously to the work that we have to do together on this very important issue. I look forward to the discussion that we will have here today.

Thank you very much.