Democracy Is Under Attack. Will Europe Fight Back?

The EU and its members too often equivocate when it comes to pushing liberal ideals, both within and outside the bloc’s borders.

Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
China's President Xi Jinping meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Jason Lee / Reuters)

In early August, as speculation swirled that the Chinese army was getting ready to crack down on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, President Donald Trump was asked whether he was concerned about the situation there. “Hong Kong is a part of China,” he told reporters on the south lawn at the White House. “They’ll have to deal with that themselves.”

Trump’s ambivalence unsettled politicians in European capitals, where the events in Hong Kong were being closely watched. Not only was the supposed leader of the free world giving Beijing what seemed like a green light, but, in doing so, he was raising pressure on the European Union and its member states—which had remained silent for weeks—to make their own views clear. Europe felt that it had to step into the breach and take a stand on democracy.

Still, it took the EU nearly two weeks to put out a brief statement. And it was far from strong, urging both sides in the Hong Kong conflict to exercise restraint. For the protesters, it was cold comfort.

The EU’s founding treaties list the promotion and protection of democracy—both within Europe and beyond its borders—as one of the bloc’s core missions. Seven years ago, the EU was awarded a Nobel Prize for advancing peace, democracy, and human rights at home.

Yet as its halting response to the events in Hong Kong shows, the EU is struggling to deliver on its original promise. This is a growing problem at a time when Trump has raised serious doubts about the United States’ commitment to democracy, through his embrace of autocrats, his criticism of allies, and his daily attacks on political opponents, the media, and the judiciary.

Before Trump came along, the EU could bide its time, safe in the knowledge that Washington would speak up for democratic movements around the world and wield the hard power necessary to back up their words. (The U.S. does still fund pro-democracy aid programs, and some members of the Trump administration and Congress have continued to speak out in favor of democracy.) But now, with protests raging in Hong Kong as well as in autocratic countries like Algeria and Egypt, and anti-democratic strongmen multiplying across the globe, the EU is facing greater pressure to step up and shout more loudly about the liberal democratic values it professes to hold dear. If Europe doesn’t, who will?

“What we’ve been seeing in Europe over the past decade is a substantial toning down of the rhetoric on democracy,” Rosa Balfour, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, told me. “At the highest political levels, the approach has become very cautious and careful. There is real demand out there for the EU to speak loudly. But it’s not happening.”

Thirty years ago, the picture was very different. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union sparked a democratic wildfire across the continent, ushering in a new era of EU enlargement and thrusting Europe into what felt at the time like the political vanguard.

Writing in the Financial Times in 2005, one year after 10 countries (including seven from the communist sphere) joined the EU, Javier Solana, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, hailed a “widening area of freedom, democracy, and stability.” He continued: “Even without the prospect of EU accession, the magnetic power of Europe remains strong.”

Three years later, the global financial crisis hit. Then, in swift succession, came a string of divisive eurozone bailouts, the disappointment of the Arab Spring uprisings, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Europe’s refugee crisis, and Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Along the way, Europe developed democratic cracks of its own—most notably in Hungary and Poland—and a far-right populism problem. With its biggest candidate country, Turkey, veering off course under the authoritarian leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, EU enlargement was put on ice.

“For countries that wanted to go down the liberal democratic path, the EU provided a good framework,” Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “But the EU can’t force countries to go down that path.”

According to the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, liberties have been in retreat worldwide since 2005, a slide that has spanned all continents and a wide range of countries, from long-standing democracies such as the United States to regimes such as China and Russia. An April 2019 survey from the Pew Research Center brought equally unsettling news: across 27 countries, a median of 51 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with how democracy was working in their country. Between 2017 and 2018, discontent with democracy significantly increased in roughly half of the countries polled.

Is it realistic to expect Europe, weakened and divided from a decade of crisis, to try to stem this rising tide? Perhaps not. But a recent paper from Carnegie Europe, “Toward a New EU Democracy Strategy,” argues that the bloc can and should be doing much more. Next year, EU member states are expected to unveil an updated action plan for supporting democracy, which could be an opportunity for Europe to recommit to one of its founding values.

“The Americans have led on this issue. Now that may be changing,” said Richard Youngs, one of the paper’s authors. “The EU is not completely alone, but it has to be more proactive and it needs to build alliances.”

In truth, the EU and its biggest member states already do a lot at the micro level to support democracy, through aid programs and election monitoring. Sweden announced its own “drive for democracy” campaign this year. The Dutch are pushing an EU version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act that would sanction individuals guilty of human rights abuses. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has promoted the idea of an “alliance for multilateralism.” And the German government agreed last month—despite pressure from weapons makers and some of its big European partners—to extend an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia imposed after the gruesome killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But European leaders, juggling economic and broader strategic interests, have too often hedged their bets when it comes to democracy and human rights. In May, EU governments, including Germany and France, backed Russia’s reinstatement as a voting member of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, despite that country’s ongoing backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other conservatives have also preferred to keep EU bad boy Viktor Orbán in the fold rather than sanction him for attacks on the media, minorities, and the rule of law in Hungary. Last month, Merkel spent two days in China without ever mentioning Beijing’s detention of more than a million Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. Traveling with her was the chairman of Volkswagen, Herbert Diess, who triggered outrage this past April when he (implausibly) denied any knowledge of the Chinese reeducation camps.

Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, told me that there were two schools of thought within the EU about how to tackle democracy promotion in an era of strongmen like Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping.

“The first is that you double down, you use the institutions to actively promote democracy, and you hope that we get through this challenging period,” she said. “The second is that you pull in your horns and don’t talk too much about democracy anymore.”

It’s time for Europe to decide which way it wants to go. With the U.S. stepping back from an activist role under Trump, democratic movements desperately need someone to take its place.