EU Foreign Policy through Civil Society

The EU’s engagement with civil society is by now a constitutive and central element of EU identity (Marchetti and Tocci 2011, 2013). As analysed previously, the EU, especially its executive branch the European Commission, has a long history of consultation with non-governmental counterparts. In the 1960s and 1970s the Commission focused on ‘consultation’ primarily with economic experts. In the 1980s and 1990s the focus shifted to ‘partnership’ within the phase of social dialogue on specific policy areas; and in the 1990s and 2000s on ‘participation’ with the entrance of the idea of participatory democracy. In today’s complex, multi-level system of European governance, societal actors play an important role. So much so that it is not uncommon to question the precise role of EU institutions vis-a-vis the different interest groups: are EU institutions masters of the fate of the plethora of non-governmental actors that try to influence EU decision-making processes, mainly through lobbying, or are they more simply victims of external pressure?

In the domain of EU external action service (i.e., EU foreign policy, in Brussels parlance), the relationship between EU institutions and civil society actors is intense. A politically sensitive dimension of this relationship is the policy field of democracy and human rights promotion, in which civil society actors constitute key partners for EU external action.

Some of the reasons why civil society has been selected as a key partner in this area are shared by the US democracy promotion program. As already seen in the American example, here also CSOs are ultimately assumed to be carriers of virtue. They are expected not to have vested interests and to be able to promote reform more effectively from below. To this, the EU adds a robust argument on the link between democracy, human rights, peace, and civil society. CSOs are ultimately seen as schools of democracy and as generators of collective trust. They are expected fundamentally to generate social capital, i.e. links and connections between people that result in the creation of norms of cooperation, reciprocity, and trust. Further crucial elements derive from such components as a participatory civil culture, the articulation of citizens’ interests, and an increased institutional responsiveness. From this, the way is then open towards a democratic and peaceful society.

The EU, historically conceived as a peace project, has considered peace promotion as a cardinal objective of its fledgling foreign policy. The Lisbon Treaty explicitly states that the EU aims to promote peace and that its role in the world should reflect the principles that inspired its creation, development, and enlargement. The treaty identifies the contribution to peace, the prevention of conflict, and the strengthening of international security amongst its foreign policy priorities. More specifically, the EU’s conception of peace has been liberal in nature, including the principles of democracy, human rights, rule of law, international law, good governance, and economic development.

The promotion of ‘liberal peace’ has been prioritized above all in the European neighbourhood. This was made clear in the 2003 Security Strategy, which argues that the Union’s task is to ‘make a particular contribution to stability and good governance in our immediate neighbourhood (and) to promote a ring of well governed countries to the East of the EU and on the borders of the Mediterranean with whom we can enjoy cooperative relations’.

The EU views as critical ‘indicators’ of conflict transformation issues such as human rights, democracy, state legitimacy, rule of law, social solidarity, sustainable development, and a flourishing civil society. Underpinning the EU’s objective of conflict resolution and transformation are thus the two cardinal principles of human rights protection and democracy promotion. These have slowly consolidated within the EU’s foreign policy approach, and are now critical building blocks in EU external relations discourse.

The promotion of human rights was already present in the European Political Cooperation agenda of the 1970s, but it was not until 1986 that, under pressure from the European Parliament, it became a core principle of European foreign policy, then widely adopted in the post-Cold War period. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU began inserting human rights as an ‘essential element’ in its trade agreements, as well as within its aid programs and in the context of its Enlargement Policy (i.e., through the 1993 Copenhagen political criteria). Since then, human rights, together with democracy, the rule of law, protection of minorities, and market economic principles, have become cornerstones in EU policies of conditionality and political dialogue with third countries near and far abroad.

As for the justification of these policies, human rights and democracy have been promoted for two key reasons: on the one hand, instrumentally, as part of a broad security rationale whereby if human rights are violated and democracy not implemented then the EU’s own security and stability are also assumed to be threatened and EU interaction with third countries to be more difficult, as based on the classical liberal theory of democratic peace (Doyle 1983); on the other hand, as part of the normative rationale whereby human rights have universal validity and represent a vital component of the EU’s own identity. To these, we should add that human rights promotion is pursued by member states and the EU also for domestic reasons, related to the acquisition of domestic legitimacy by occupying an alleged moral high-ground in foreign policy.

The EU holds a specific understanding of human rights that is not fully shared by many other countries, be they democratic or authoritarian, or by all international organizations. EU priorities on human rights include the following: fight against death penalty, against torture, and in support of children’s rights, women’s rights, freedom of religion, LGBT rights, minorities’ rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, and rights of people with disabilities (European Commission 2010). It is easy to notice that depending on which aspect of human rights is picked up, a different alliance can be constructed. If the fight against the death penalty is at stake, Russia might be a good partner and the US a bad one. If the fight for LGBT rights is at stake then the opposite is true. As a consequence, controversies are generated almost every time the EU attempts to spread this specific understanding to third parties and to international organizations.

The EU promotes human rights in large part through its ‘constructive engagement’ with third parties. By constructive engagement EU actors have encouraged the deployment of a rich variety of measures of cooperation, which are normally specified in contractual agreements with third countries. These contractual relations take different forms, entailing different degrees of integration into and cooperation with the EU. They range from the accession process aimed at the full membership of a candidate country to looser forms of association, which envisage measures of economic, political, and social cooperation with EU structures short of full membership.

In terms of policy mechanisms used to pursue these structural changes, the EU deploys positive and negative conditionality, aid for human rights programmes, and diplomatic instruments such as declarations, demarches, and political dialogue (including specific human rights dialogues). Two much discussed cases of such mechanisms are those of Turkey, that has its accession to the EU conditioned on the abolition of death penalty, and of Moldova, that had its visa-free regime conditioned on the introduction of new legislation in favour of LGBT rights.

Yet another critical component in the EU’s foreign policy vision is regarding the role of civil society in human rights promotion. Civil society is viewed here both as an aim to be promoted in and of itself, as well as a means through which the EU can pursue more effectively objectives such as the promotion of peace, democracy and human rights.

The EU has approached civil society and impacted on its nature and functioning in indirect and direct ways.

Indirectly, the EU can contribute to democracy and human rights promotion through civil society by altering the structure in which CSOs operate, for example by raising the interconnectedness between CSOs and the state on the one hand, and CSOs and the grassroots on the other. By covering a wide range of sectors such as institutions, law, infrastructure, health, education, trade, and investment, EU policies can thus shape the overall environment in which CSOs operate. This assumes that the potential for civil society to influence a country depends fundamentally on the space the state leaves open to civil society activity. If this space is limited or non-existent (i.e. in authoritarian and illiberal contexts, often found in conflict situations), then civil society is less likely to exert a visible impact on political dynamics. Hence, unless the EU exerts effective pressure on state actors to engage in political reform, thus altering the political opportunity structure in which civil society operates, EU policy is unlikely to induce democratization and conflict transformation through civil society. Within the context of accession policy and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), for example, the EU can shape the policies and institutional features of third countries, influencing the overall environment in which civil society operates. More specifically, the European Commission (European Commission 2006) has openly suggested enhancing civil society participation in the ENP by encouraging neighbourhood governments to seek civil society involvement in monitoring the implementation of ENP action plans. To this end, the European Commission organized for the first time an ENP conference in September 2007, bringing together governmental actors and CSOs from the EU and the neighborhood.

Directly, the EU would enhance the agency of CSOs engaged in democracy and human rights promotion. This direct targeting can take three principal forms. First, it can limit itself to forms of dialogue with and on CSOs: publicly expressing appreciation/condemnation for particular organizations, attending their activities, and facilitating access to contacts and information exchanges between CSOs as well as between CSOs and international actors. The underlying aims of these different forms of dialogue include gaining a deeper understanding of the local context, socializing CSOs into adopting different positions or engaging in different activities and raising the prestige, morale, and status of particular CSOs. Second, EU actors can engage with civil society through training, for instance by providing scholarships and technical material and training courses to CSO representatives in fields such as communication (e.g., political debate, public relations, and advocacy), substantive issues such as international law, human rights, and Community law, as well as in building organizational and financial capacity and in recruiting supporters and members. Third, the EU’s direct engagement with CSOs can take the form of financial support, including directing funding to organizations or to specific programs and projects. Some of these funds are channeled through the intermediation of official institutions in third countries. Others are instead directly delivered to CSOs. Funds allocated within contractual relations, such as these instruments, are primarily channeled through the intermediation of official institutions in third countries, and only through the latter do they reach civil society. In view of the limits of this approach, the EIDHR is of particular relevance.

The program that is most active on this direct financing of NGOs on issues of democracy and human rights is the EIDHR. This is a major financing instrument used by the EU to support CSOs worldwide and, through them, to provide aid for human rights and democracy. The overall funding for the EIDHR is small in proportion to the total EU external relations budget and even smaller when matched against the whole EU budget, but it has decisively increased over the years. This proves that democracy and human rights are increasingly viewed as necessary aims of foreign policy to be pursued, inter alia, through civil society.

The EIHDR prioritizes cooperation with civil society organizations (and international organizations) around the world without limiting itself to the cooperation and consent of host governments. The EIDHR builds on work done with and through civil society organizations aimed at defending the fundamental freedoms which form the basis for all democratic processes and helping civil society to become an effective force for political reform and defence of human rights.

The EIDHR is intended to act as a soft policy instrument—nonprescriptive, grassroots, and focused on social development. Underlying this approach is also the recognition of the need for ‘local ownership’. According to the EU, this is difficult to achieve when relations with partner countries are limited to government-to-government contacts. Hence the continuing importance of support to civil society and human rights defenders to help empower citizens, to allow them to claim their rights, and build and sustain momentum for change and political reform.

While other means of action are considered unwarranted, this soft, reactive, grassroots, non-coercive and allegedly non-prescriptive approach is justified. However, what is often overlooked or taken for granted in this official discourse is that, despite being focused on CSOs, this approach is highly political. Expected results and performance indicators of the projects funded by the EIDHR include, for instance, the following political priorities: [1]

  • 4. Multi-party agreement and the formulation of draft legislation, after CSO dialogues, for quotas of women on party lists; for party platforms to include commitments to make changes in the penal code; creation of an ombudsman; combating discrimination on any grounds; greater decentralization.
  • 5. Formation of new CSOs, membership developed and activities begun by people with disabilities; for AIDS orphans organization to play an active role in the CSOs’ umbrella body; special women’s officer and women’s section created within the main trade union, liaising with women NGOs and the media; launching of campaigns for promotion of anti-discrimination legislation. (European Commission 2007, p. 20)

From this list, the political nature of CSO funding emerges in full force. As opposed to former funding for development CSOs, which was mainly devoted to technical assistance, in this new strategy the EIDHR aims at transforming the societies in which it operates towards democratization through civil society. By moulding party preferences, proposing new legislation and constitutional reforms, and inducing land reform and decentralization, the EU approach intends to have a deep impact on the political opportunity structures within third countries through support for civil society. These policy aims and means have been cloaked in highly normative language, which often hinders both a lucid debate regarding the actual desirability and legitimacy of this approach and a detailed empirical account of what the EU actually achieves in practice. Indeed, once declarations of intent are translated into policy practice, we note how the EU, rather than being anchored within the broad tradition of conflict transformation, adheres to a far stricter interpretation of (neo-)liberal peacebuilding (Richmond 2006). This approach is not without critiques for many of the general reasons cited above. EU engagement with civil society within the liberal peacebuilding tradition may be detrimental to conflict transformation. This is not simply because the EU misidentifies CSOs, thus inadvertently strengthening securitizing CSOs and/or weakening de-securitizing ones. It is rather because by engaging with CSOs the EU might contribute to the two seemingly contradictory distorting effects discussed above: de-politicization and excessive politicization. EU support for civil society can lead to the de-politicization of CSOs by supporting technical and professional NGOs to the detriment of more overtly political ones such as trade unions, social movements, religious charities, or community-based organizations (Belloni 2001). Smaller or more political organizations would thus either be shunned by the EU or fail to meet the necessary technical/bureaucratic requirements to be allocated EU funds. As such, the potential for the constructive mobilization and politicization of society would narrow, diminishing the prospects for grassroots actors to alter the structural conditions of violent conflict. At the same time, EU support for civil society could also lead to the excessive ‘politicization’ of CSOs. The EU would thus fundamentally shape the nature of civil society into a dependent functional substitute within the liberal paradigm of EU foreign policy, detaching and delegitimizing it in the eyes of the public (Chandler 2001). In doing so, a limited and distorted form of civil society would mushroom, while existing local capacity would be harmed or destroyed (Richmond and Carey 2005). Civil society would lose its autonomy and become politically accountable to, and an acquiescent instrument within, the hands of EU donors. It would respond to the EU’s political priorities, and in turn tend to focus on short-term, outcome-driven and quantifiable projects, which may be far removed from the long-term, dynamic, process-driven, and multidimensional needs of conflict transformation (Vukosavljevic 2007).

What emerges from this logic is that, since military intervention is not a feasible option for the EU, or, some would argue, a desirable option given the EU’s self-proclamation as a soft, civilian, or normative power, the EU’s approach has privileged acting through civil society. Hence, not only does the EU claim to promote universal normative values such as democracy and human rights, but the means through which it does so— civil society—is viewed by the EU as a legitimate way to influence domestic affairs within third states. While other courses of action are considered unwarranted, this soft, reactive, grassroots, non-coercive, and allegedly non-prescriptive approach is considered fully justified.

However, what is often overlooked in official discourse is that this approach remains highly political. As opposed to former funding for development NGOs, which was mainly devoted to technical assistance, the EIDHR aims at transforming the societies in which it operates towards democratization through civil society. Despite being mediated by civilian actors, this external influence is perceived by many countries as an i llegitimate because it artificially changes societies from the outside through the infiltration of foreign ideas and interests backed by money and political support.

The EIDHR is not the only instrument that provides direct funding to CSOs in third countries. Recently, in 2013, the European Endowment for

Democracy (EED) was created as a private law foundation. This is not part of the EU, though it is considered a ‘joint effort of the Member States and European Union institutions’, and has links to the ENP, together with the Civil Society Facility (CSF). Poland was a main sponsor, and funding comes from the European Commission, some European member states, and private actors/foundations. The goal here is to provide direct grants to pro-democracy activists in the European neighbourhood and beyond, complementing official EU action. It is meant to be flexible, non-bureaucratic, and quick to react. The logic of the mission moves away from classical modernization theories (prerequisites for democracy including economic, social, or cultural factors) towards human agency, that is, civil society. The mission statement talks about fostering, not exporting, democracy and readiness to assist democratic change in the spirit of solidarity and partnership especially in the European Neighborhood. One of the first initiatives was to provide a €150,000 grant to support Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv, in particular for those who were injured or in need of legal support.

  • [1] Parliamentary agreement, after concerted CSO campaigning, to legislate on gender equality, on rights for indigenous people, on abolitionof the death penalty, on prevention of torture, on new constitutionalprovisions for overseeing the military, on the enforcement of provisionson child labour, or on the independent composition of the electoralcommission. 2. Regular reports by a consortia of civil bodies on the implementation ofa ENP action plan; an independent detailed diagnosis of challenges tohuman rights and democracy, endorsed by leading civil societystakeholders. 3. Broad consensus between groups with opposing interests on directionsfor legislation on land reform and compensation, on the terms of reference and resources for a truth and reconciliation commission; regulardialogues established between CSOs divided on religious or ethnicgrounds and the launching of some common activities.
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