Democracy European Union

Article: Defining Democracy - an EU Imperative

This article was published in the EUobserver.

By Michael Meyer-Resende and Dick Toornstra

The Czech and Swedish EU presidencies have launched a debate on a European consensus on democracy, which raises the question of whether the EU should define a notion of democracy. This is welcome, because the controversial question of democratic standards permeates many aspects of the EU's foreign policy, be it the Copenhagen criteria for EU accession, the human rights and democracy clauses in international agreements or the EU's programmes of democracy promotion. Clarity on what Europe means by "democracy" would be in the interest of transparency and fairness towards foreign partners.

The international organisation IDEA has published an insightful study on international perceptions of EU democracy promotion. Many people feel that the EU should not only emphasise the procedures of democracy, but also its performance, in particular in addressing economic inequalities. Consequently, the study proposes a broad understanding of democracy, which includes the question of economic development.

However, while it is useful to look at the nexus between development support and democracy promotion, the two should not be mixed up. First, because political freedoms are more than questions of procedures. They have an intrinsic value, and are not only a means to achieving better incomes. Second, because too broad an understanding of democracy leads to analytical confusion. China's one-party-state has lifted millions out of poverty, but this does not make the country partly democratic.

Other definitions of democracy are very narrow, such as Schumpeter's "competitive struggle for people's votes." The EU's dilemma is that any definition it may adopt can be rejected by partner states. Why should they be judged by a standard that the EU developed unilaterally? Sure, some regional organisations have adopted democracy definitions, such as the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

However, these are 'internal' definitions for use in their regions, while the EU looks to define democracy for its external dimension, vis-a-vis other states and international organisations around the world.

The solution is to find out what the world is thinking about democracy. Four years ago 172 states, including all EU member states, approved a UN General Assembly resolution, which defined "essential elements of democracy." No state voted against it and only 15 abstained.

According to the resolution, the essential elements are: Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, inter alia, freedom of association and peaceful assembly and of expression and opinion: the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives, to vote and to be a candidate; a pluralistic system of political parties and organizations; respect for the rule of law; the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary; transparency and accountability in public administration; and free, independent and pluralistic media.

The EU should endorse these essential elements and make clear that they reflect its understanding of democracy. Given that these are only "essential elements," it would leave open the debate whether there are other elements that make a democracy, a debate that appears to be inconclusive. Other states could not object to a definition that they have endorsed previously. Working with a definition emanating from the UN context would also be in line with the EU's objective of strengthening multi-lateralism and a rule-based international order.

Michael Meyer-Resende co-ordinates Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting political participation. Dick Toornstra is the European Parliament's special advisor on democracy.