European support for democracy: stress-tests ahead in 2022

Ken Godfrey and Richard Youngs (co-founders of European Democracy Hub)

In 2021, the EU and European governments set the wheels in motion on a series of new commitments and policy initiatives in support of democracy. The Commission, guided by the European Democracy Action Plan, tackled challenges to electoral integrity, media freedom, online advertising and disinformation. Member states, in the framework of the US-led Summit for Democracy, agreed to bolster both their own democracies and support to democracy around the world. The EU also set up the Team Europe Democracy (TED) initiative under which member states and the EU institutions will coordinate more systematically on democracy issues and aim to generate common analytical assessments of the challenges ahead – replicating the way in which different sources of European funding were brought together to tackle Covid-19. The Commission outlined its funding priorities for democracy under the new EU budget and began to allocate significant amounts of funding. 

Yet, our in-depth survey of European democracy support in 2021 shows that European actions do not always align with words; in several instances of the last 12 months, the EU failed to act in support of democracy.

If 2021 was a year for laying the foundations for stronger policies moving forward, 2022 must be a year of action. Here are 5 issues on the horizon in 2022 that will test how far the EU really is committed to defending democratic values.

First, on February 16, the European Court of Justice will deliver a decision on the rule of law conditionality mechanism in the new EU budget. If the verdict is favourable, as it is widely expected to be, the EU must be prepared to stick to its guns and to withhold EU funds from Hungary and Poland. A failure to invoke the conditionality mechanism would be a major warning sign for the sustainability of the Union and underline that EU rhetoric on democracy is not matched by hard action. 

Second, the Hungarian elections slated for April 3. While many will focus on the French elections later that month, the outcome of the Hungarian elections is arguably more important for EU policy-making, particularly those in support of democracy. If Victor Orban wins, the EU will need to solve several institutional problems, including the increasing frequency of a Hungarian veto in foreign affairs. If Orban loses to the unified opposition, it could represent a breakthrough – but one that will need much support and nurturing, especially if it is to open up greater potential for dialogue or sanctions vis-à-vis a Polish government no longer protected by its ally in the Council of the EU. 

Third, the Conference on the Future of Europe. This unique experiment at deliberation at the supranational level is set to conclude in early summer following a year of citizen panels, plenary events and hundreds of decentralised deliberative processes.  While the participation is important in itself, if it doesn’t lead to any meaningful change it will add fuel to the escalating critiques of the EU institutions as an elite-led project divorced from the needs of European citizens. The key question is therefore how all these various sources of input will find their way into meaningful conclusions and follow-up actions. Not everyone will be satisfied but the EU will need to ensure citizen input is central to the conclusions, opening up an avenue for the regeneration of European democratic debate.

Fourth, 2022 must be a year in which the flagship TED initiative – designed to improve coordination between EU and EU member states externally – demonstrates early operational impact. The EU has been criticised in the past for failing to update its democracy support to be more savvy, flexible and quick. If there is a democratic breakthrough in 2022, can the EU mobilise financial and political support faster than it has done in the past? If there is a coup, will the EU quickly shift its support to activists and civil society? TED could provide just the mechanism to help upgrade European democracy support to better address previous limitations. 

And finally, the next 12 months have been labelled by the Summit for Democracy as a ‘Year of Action’, but what this means in concrete terms remains unclear. While commitments made by EU and European governments are important, concrete actions on the international stage would speak far louder than words—including a better use of sanctions and firmer support for pro-democratic activists. How far is the EU willing to go to accept trade-offs in other policy areas? Look out for the EU reaction to potential deals with Russia over Ukraine, possibly disputed Kenyan elections, deteriorating democracy in Tunisia, international talks aimed at beginning reconstruction aid with the Syrian regime and calls for renewed cooperation with Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The EU and individual European governments talked a lot in 2021 about their commitment to defend democracy in turbulent and inauspicious times. And they moved to put in place new policies, processes and funds that suggested some serious intent. In 2022 they will be tested in all these different ways over how far they are actually willing to defend democracy in practice. There will be plenty of other priorities to drag them away from this endeavour, from new conflict risks to another surge in Covid-19 variants. But in a world increasingly shaped by antagonism between democracy and authoritarianism, a year of democratic inaction will be geopolitically costly. 

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