Is the European Union Losing Leadership on Human Rights?

For a long time the European Union has been considered a beacon of human rights protection, democracy and rule of law in the world. Now there are worrying signals that this leadership is weakening.

Susi Dennison and Anthony Dworkin from the European Council on Foreign Relations have written a policy brief proposing an EU human rights strategy for a post-western world. I had a very informative and interesting discussion with Anthony Dworkin on this policy brief. Below is a brief account of the main findings and policy recommendations.

The Problem

The European Union and the US are losing their influence in the world. The military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have to some extent delegitimised the idea of democracy promotion for many, and led people to associate the concept with that of regime change. The success and growing assertiveness of authoritarian capitalist countries, and China in particular, have broken the link between liberal democracy and economic and social development. According to Mr. Dworkin as a result the West has less influence and less ability to try and affect what’s happening. For example China is now much more successful than Europe in winning support for its position on human rights resolutions in the United Nations.

I asked Mr. Dworkin if he believes that the China model is sustainable in the long term given the rising economic inequalities there. He said that China is changing rapidly and that it’s too soon to say if it’s sustainable.

The European Difficulties

In the European Union there are a number of reasons for this relative loss of leadership on the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. First, there is some loss of confidence in the ability of the European Union to make a difference in the world in terms of human rights protection. Certain instruments, such as sanctions, simply don’t work very well. EU Member States have sometimes sacrificed their long-time commitment to human rights and democracy in their pursuit of geopolitical interests. For example Member States in the Mediterranean states have been most keen to engage with regimes in North Africa, while forgetting about the human rights perspective. Certain immigration policy measures may have a serious impact on the legitimacy of the European Union in the developing countries. The expulsion of Roma from France has most likely exacerbated that trend.

The Road Ahead

The authors of the policy brief outline a number of very practical policy recommendations that certainly deserve further consideration and discussion. The European Union needs a new, strategic approach for the promotion of human rights and democratic values. This approach must be realistic in the first place. It needs to take into account the shifting world balance of power. In a nutshell the EU must break down the abstract package of democracy and human rights to emphasise those issues that are most relevant to particular societies. The EU must set clear enough priorities – key issues on which to make progress with separate countries. The authors call these “pressure points”, relating to fundamental values on which the EU can reasonably expect to have an impact. In doing that the EU should rely primarily on a policy of graduated engagement using concerted pressure on key concerns and, wherever possible, offering specific incentives for carefully chosen objectives.

The tools for this new policy approach are already available. There are also some new opportunities – such as the use of trade relations to advance human rights, where some Internet restrictions for example may be considered contrary to WTO rules. There are also important partnerships with developing countries that must be explored, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa. Turkey in particular may be a valuable partner because of its closeness to the EU and its growing role as an influential regional power in the Middle East.

The Institutional Dimension

For the new approach to work there must be high level alignment of different EU policies with the priorities of the promotion of human rights and democracy. Mr. Dworkin sees here a role both for the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the President of the European Council. There must be a clear statement on these priorities and very senior level policymakers must be engaged in the process. A structure in the European External Action Service can also provide coordination.

This post is written specially for the Day of Multilingual Blogging. The Bulgarian version of this blog post is here. This blog has been published in both Bulgarian and English since February 2009.

3 responses to “Is the European Union Losing Leadership on Human Rights?

  1. Pingback: Губи ли Европейският съюз лидерството си по отношение на човешките права? | Право на Европейския съюз

  2. Pingback: Friday reading room « The Endless Track

  3. Pingback: Belarus: the White Elephant in the Room | European Union Law

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