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.”
Yascha Mounk: The rapid fall of the left
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.”