Ideas on Europe

Theofanis Exadaktylos - Democracy Support Strategies in the EU’s Neighbourhood

Theofanis Exadaktylos - Democracy Support Strategies in the EU’s Neighbourhood

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Theofanis Exadaktylos again, from the University of Surrey, in England.

Congratulations, Theofanis ! Obtaining a full-fledged, transnational research project in the HORIZON EUROPE programme is a researcher’s holy grail, isn’t it? And you’re just about to start new REDEMOS project, with a strong focus on EU democracy support in its Eastern neighbourhood. Tell us all about it!

As we know well, in recent years, we have experienced a degree of democratic erosion across some member states following the rise and mainstreaming of right-wing populist parties. It is interesting to observe that this has also been coupled with a rising degree of Eurosceptic and anti-European sentiments.

At the same time, the EU has a long-standing support for the promotion of democracy. Frequently, achieving membership status was not only seen as a sign of consolidation of democracy in candidate countries, but also as a way of strengthening democracy domestically. In the 1980s, the inclusion of Greece, Spain and Portugal was seen as an achievement of restoring democracy. Later in the 1990s the process of Enlargement to the East to include former communist countries was hailed as the contribution of the EU towards the democratisation and transition of these countries to the liberal world. For many years, being part of the EU was seen as the ‘only game in town’ and a goal that non-EU members would look up to.

How exactly has the EU implemented its democracy support strategy?

We can say that the EU developed a sophisticated strategy to promote democracy as part of its external affairs by promoting association partnerships without promising membership, through the European Neighbourhood Policy.

These support efforts have revolved around mechanisms such as “accession conditionality and socialisation”, underpinned by the transfer of values, norms and procedures across an expanding area of EU external action. But while the definitive prospect of full membership provided strong incentives for democratisation to Central and Eastern European candidate countries, the challenges to democracy support in the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhood proved more difficult.

And that’s what your new REDEMOS consortium wants to study in detail, right?

Exactly. The purpose of our research is to explore the difficulties encountered by the EU in supporting democracy and democratic initiatives in its eastern neighbourhood.

These challenges can stem from various origins:

(a) From the EU itself as the process of integration is continuing and as its own member states face democratic backsliding and erosion through the increase in right-wing populist party support;

(b) From the geopolitical location of the EU’s eastern and southern neighbours, considering the Great Power competition with Russia, China, the US and the sensitive relations in the Middle East;

(c) From the demand for democracy and support for democratisation processes within the countries of the eastern and southern neighbourhood.

Our aim is to explore why illiberalism has made a comeback on the continent and to provide recommendations for ways forward of solving the existing problems with democracy support.

And who is part of the REDEMOS project?

The consortium includes academics and leading think tank and policy practitioners.

The National Technical University of Norway in Trondheim and my own University in Surrey are leading the consortium. Alongside Dr Madalena Dobrescu and Prof Tobias Schumacher at NTNU, and Prof Amelia Hadfield at Surrey, I have the pleasure of co-leading the project.

We are 12 partners in total, including institutions from Germany, Estonia, Greece and Switzerland, but most importantly from countries of the Eastern Neighbourhood, namely Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and even Ukraine (the Kyiv School of Economics).

We’re starting in January, for a duration of three years.

And what do you expect as outcomes?

We are planning to take a deep dive into the last pockets of autocracy in Europe, such as Belarus, and suggest and create ways in which the European countries within the EU – and even and outside, such as the UK, Norway and Switzerland – can support the promotion of democracy in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, especially in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. We believe it is vital to study the concepts, practices and behaviours that make up both illiberalism and re-democratisation, and to understand all the political, cultural and economic forces at play.

If democracy is being forced out in these parts of Eastern Europe, then so too are the voices supporting and demanding democracy. At the end of the day, our project is about human empowerment and the ability of the local “demos” to create truly democratic societies.

Many thanks for sharing this initiative with us. You can be sure we’ll call you again for reporting on how the project works out.

Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will Mechthild Roos, from the University of Augsburg in Germany.