The European Endowment for Democracy is ten years old. As this vital democracy organisation celebrates its first decade in operation, how far has it achieved its stated aims? And how will it need to evolve if it is to make an effective contribution to democracy support in the next decade?
The European Endowment for Democracy was a long time in gestation and began life without fulsome political backing. It was created after several years of fissiparous debate about democracy support. For some time before the EED’s inception in 2013, policymakers, democracy foundations and analysts recognized that democracy aid was losing traction and needed to be revived.
Over several years prior to 2013, conversations had centred on the need for more flexible aid, delivered more quickly and to the kind of democratic agents most in tune with their societies. After playing a valuable role in Eastern European transitions, formal EU democracy support appeared to be losing steam. Authoritarian regimes were becoming less accommodating to external support programmes on sensitive political questions.
Ideas had been raised over a number of years for stronger coordination between EU institutions, member states and democracy foundations. Compared to other areas of policy, the democracy support agenda was conspicuously weak in its degree of Europeanisation: common European-level bodies existed to marshal resources on many policy challenges, like security, migration and the environment, yet there was no equivalent covering democracy.
Despite the growing frustrations, improvements to democracy support were not forthcoming. I remember coming out of many meetings in these years struck by the degree of resistance to an EU-level body in the democracy field. Resistance from the European Commission that believed it had democracy support in order. Resistance from member states that wanted to retain control over the place of democracy in their foreign policies. And resistance from national democracy foundations wanting to keep hold of their own resources and autonomy.
Moreover, the early 2000s had in some ways set back the cause of European democracy support. The democracy agenda had become associated with and tainted by the Bush administration and the debacle in Iraq. European governments seemed increasingly divided on key foreign policy challenges in the aftermath of their bruising divergences over Iraq. On top of all this, the financial crisis that began in 2009 turned the EU inwards to its own needs and drew funds away from external programmes.
The Arab spring, and other events like protests in Belarus in 2010, changed the context, and finally unlocked agreement for a new democracy organisation. The EU’s failure to respond strongly or quickly enough to help Arab reformers lock-in the potential opening for democracy was chastening for the democracy-support community. It was by now clear that the Commission’s various democracy support mechanisms were under-performing.
Still, political sensitivities further delayed and diluted the prospective new democracy body. After reaching agreement in principle to back a European Endowment for Democracy in 2011, member states procrastinated over details of the EED’s remit, until the endowment’s board was established at the end of 2012. The Commission and External Action Service were by then broadly supportive, although still harboured some reservations over the breadth of the new body’s mandate.
Ultimately, only a determined push from Polish and Swedish ministers got EED over the starting line and fully operational. Central and Eastern European states’ growing confidence was expressed through their stronger push for pro-democracy action, and this was instrumental in the EED’s creation. A key turning point came when the German government dropped its ambivalence and came on board. Democracy foundations and civil society organisations began to see that the new body would not compete with them for funds but potentially help increase the resources available for the democracy community as a whole. The parallel experience of the European Partnership Democracy, by then in operation for nearly 5 years, added reassurance.
Nonetheless, when the EED did eventually start work, it did so without as much money as hoped (despite its name, it was not set up as a guaranteed endowment) and with unequivocal buy-in from only a handful of member states. Media coverage was critical and downbeat. I recall that even at this stage, many practitioners and analysts doubted that the EED would survive for long.
Yet, in some ways this modest start proved to be a blessing in disguise. It prevented expectations starting out too high and allowed the EED very gradually to establish itself as a useful player by showing concrete benefit on the ground in difficult political contexts. The endowment was operational just in time to play a creative role in Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising. The new body found a niche and stuck to a narrow remit – of ‘supporting the unsupported’ – that reassured doubters.
Of course, criticisms could be waged against EED actions. Questions could be asked about whether it has always got the balance right in its thematic and geographic priorities, whether it has stayed a little too ‘niche’ in its activities and thus not realised its full potential, or whether ‘flexible funding’ has become too breezy a mantra. But its incremental development has won round most of its initial detractors. A key moment was when the EED’s remit was extended to Russia in 2015. Most of the governments that initially refused to contribute funds now do so. The EU institutions have moved from being wary to relying on the EED to work in contexts where formal EU initiatives have become more difficult.
Despite its justifiably vaunted achievements, the EED has of course not been able to halt the deteriorating global context for democracy support over the last decade. Yet its own record over ten years has gradually established benchmarks for new kinds of democracy support, influencing broader debates indirectly ‘by doing’. I am still struck by how often I hear analysts or diplomats call for democracy aid to change in ways that the EED has already been trying out for many years. In the next phase of its development, it behoves the EED to play a wider role in overcoming the constraints to democracy support that have only sharpened since its creation ten years ago. The need for an ambitious EED is even greater 10 years on.
This essay was initially published as part of a special EED 10th anniversary publication on 3 July 2023.