Speech by Roel von Meijenfeldt
Executive Director Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD)

at the Wilton Park Conference


Let me first thank the Wilton Park organisers for organising this important and timely conference on the European approach to democracy building. I am very glad to see so many friends the NIMD, my organisation, has come across over the years in the field and within Europe. I am grateful and privileged to have the opportunity to address this meeting and to engage in discussions on a topic – democracy promotion – that I consider to deserve more attention within foreign policy circles within the European Union, it’s member states and their civil societies.

Why?  I believe that Europe is at a historic threshold in which it either takes up the challenge of assisting the process of democracy building in third partner countries, in recognition that it ultimately serves Europe’s own interest to live in a world of democracies, or to fall back in complacency with the achievements of consolidating the former East and Central European countries – which transited peacefully to democracy – as new members within the expanded EU club.

That in itself has been a milestone of historic proportions as often acknowledged.  However, if Europe fails to take the lessons of supporting transitions to and consolidation of democracy forward as a core objective in its foreign policy to other parts of the world, it will send a message of hope to the autocracies which have gained new ground in the current international context and a message of abandonment (betrayal) to those struggling to advance democracy.

There are so many people around the world with high expectations for partnership with Europe in the increasingly hostile international environment for democratic development, that – despite the many internal EU challenges to find ways forward with its institutional reform process – Europe should assume its natural vocation of recognizing that democracy is the basis for prosperity and peace.

From this conference I hope we will leave with a clearer idea of the distinctive European approach to democracy building in societies facing a post conflict situation, of democracy promotion in countries where democracy is still awaited, and about approaches in assistance to young and emerging democracies.

Part I:   Building a European Agenda
Little over two years ago we organized the conference on Enhancing the European Profile in Democracy Support in The Hague that resulted in the The Hague Statement.   The conference was the positive response of what turned out a catastrophe, the invasion of Iraq under the pretense of causing regime change to advance democracy.  Some of us felt that in response, it would be appropriate that to get our own house better in order as Europeans and start seriously working on enhancing the European operational capacity and approaches.

This statement identified what may constitute a specific European identity in supporting democracy.  It distinguished seven dimensions and concluded that Europe has a lot to offer in democracy support.  Secondly, the statement set out a number of suggestions for the European architecture in democracy support.  Two years down the road, significant progress can be reported although much has still to be achieved.  There is no reason for complacency.

The conference argued that whereas democracy is the cement on which Europe has achieved its stability and prosperity, it would only be consistent if democracy support would become a core pillar of the EU foreign policy.  A foreign and defense policy that a remarkable and over the years constant 67% of the European population want to see expanded.

Consultations with the Council and the transatlantic dialogue between the EU and USA resulted in the first policy paper on democracy promotion produced in July 2006 under the title ‘Food for Thought’.  The paper is an excellent introduction in the theme and has subsequently been discussed in various meetings within the Council without going anywhere specifically at this point in time I have understood.

But what a nice birthday surprise, at the 50th anniversary of the EU last weekend, the Berlin Declaration (which was kept secret until the very last minute) contained for the very first time a reference to democracy promotion as objective of its external policy.  The sentence in this short statement reads:  The European Union will continue to promote democracy, stability and prosperity beyond its borders.

I am sure, we owe it to our German friends present here, that the reference to democracy promotion has been included as a core objective of EU foreign policy!  Obviously, it is still a paper statement and we realize that the debate within the council has not reached momentum yet, but it can and should be an important reference to engage the Council more pro-actively in enhancing the EU’s profile in democracy support.

Secondly, the Commission.  In the new financial perspectives 2007 – 2013, an external assistance a package of around € 70 bn and with € 22.6 bn under the European Development Fund (EDF) with 2.7 bn governance bonus (Millennium account) for period 2008 – 2012.   And the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR II) with 1.1 bn.  We have lobbied hard to get the non-state actors budget lines and EIDHR budget-lines more flexible and open for political society.  But they remain bureaucratic management instruments with limited value for some of the highly political and sensitive work implemented by some of our democracy support agencies.

Thirdly, the EP has become more proactive with its own democracy bureau and with the establishment of the democracy caucus.

Fourthly, there is a beginning engagement within European civil society to discuss and cooperate on the democracy agenda and to establish partnership relations with the relevant institutions of the European Union and initiatives to strengthen our European civil society operational capacity.

Part II:  What are the challenges?
There is a lot of writing about backsliding of democracy.  That analysis is correct, while the international context has also substantially deteriorated for advancing democracy.  Let us say that after the third wave, the ocean has returned to its normal dangerous currents.  Supporting change in power relations, which is where democracy promotion and assistance is all about, was never going to be simple.  The adversaries of democracy have learned and are learning the ropes of averting the impact of democracy assistance.  It is our challenge to look beyond the horizons of our current practices and interests, and to assess critically how we can enhance our capacity to support meaningful and tangible democratic reform processes.   I believe that it is only consistent with our own European values and experience that we take up this challenge seriously.

Part III:  Elements for a forward Agenda


1. developing the concepts of democracy promotion and assistance by addressing:

    1. perceptions:  linear development vs the valley of the tears, sequencing (economic development first democracy later), etc.
    2. clarification of what is democracy promotion and assistance and what it is not?  The numbers game.

2. integrating the 3 D’s and cohesion EU and member states and within EU civil society

Within international cooperation, trade, economic cooperation, security cooperation and development cooperation have been the mainstay.  Democracy promotion is more or less taken for granted but is not part of the core foreign policy agenda.  For the reasons summarized before, there is a strong case to argue that foreign policy should encompass three dimensions, three Ds :  Defense (security), Development and Democracy.

The three Ds are so interlinked and interrelated, that it makes good sense to bring these three dimensions into one policy framework.  From my experience, I know that this will meet much institutional resistance because around each of the dimensions specific institutional interests have been established.  In my opinion, however, the interconnectness and lessons learned of missed impact because of fragmented approaches, require that we need to move forward and open the windows for some fresh thinking and approaches.

The paradigm as developed by Amartya Sen (countries become fit through democracy) and taken up by some high-ranking policy makers within the EU, suggests a sequencing that would make democracy promotion the core objective.  Personally, I think we should be careful with sequencing between the various dimensions and with an assumption of causal relationships.  In history democracy developed over long periods of time, but in today’s world time is in short supply.  In my work in democracy promotion, I have learned that the one dimension does not go without the other.  It is not either/or, but it is and/and.  The art is to find in each specific situation the right balance between the dimensions and the cadence, the rhythm of change and of modernization processes that societies can manage peacefully.


  • going deeper, going to the core: focus on political society.  Empowering stakeholders rather than overpowering them with technical advice.  For democracy, our biggest assets are our partners on the ground.  Back to partnership practiced differently. Opportunities for democratic advancement is – as it is referred to – path dependent, dependent on the preceding experience and the process through which change is pursued.  Facilitation of dialogue about national reform agenda.
  • from hardware to software. Investment in the formal attributes of democracy is not sufficient.  Investment is needed in the practicing democracy, the culture of democracy.   As former France PM Mendes France once stated:  ‘La democratie est d’abord un etat d’esprit’.  Learning to disagree without becoming disagreeable, learning to to overcome conflicts of interests peacefully.  It is the process of constructing democracy, a dimension not much on anybody’s agenda. By delivering our international cooperation differently, a lot can be achieved in this field.  Democracy can only be built from within as Ghandi already taught and the Indian history in democracy building provides an interesting example in this respect.

In this context we may wish to elaborate the governance approach along the lines as recently introduced by Hilary Benn within DFID, by the former Minister of Development Cooperation of The Netherlands, Agnes van der Ardenne, and already practiced by the Swedish government.  The political realm should be a key component of the governance agenda.  That is a major paradigm shift but a very necessary one.  We need to think through how this can be done in an environment which has tried to keep the political dimension at arm length.

  • increase operational and professional capacity (European civil society and not another European Agency) in order to be responsive to opportunities arising, to take risks of which the formal institutions are averse, operate at arm length, become a European knowledge hub and gateway to partners who want to access European knowledge and experience and a catalyst in developing the content of the European democracy approach.
  • increase academic interest and educational training.   Democracy support suffers from a culture of complacency, everything done is by definition good.  Tom Carothers and Gero Erdmann, among others, raise the need for regular evaluations to enhance the performance of the various actors in this field.  Frankly, if I read their publications, I find them rather timid.  Democracy support needs a critical academic community that can help to keep all of us on our toes, recognizing that we work with public money.   The intrinsic values of democracy promotion demand from the professionals in this business, the highest standards of transparency and accountability.  Secondly, the complexities of democracy support require more academic research and teaching.  There is an increasing interest among young academics judging on the many requests for internship we receive, but the support of democracy is not an academic discipline yet.  Is this not something we should be considering? 

I hope these suggestions provide some horizons for the unfolding EU democracy promotion and assistance agenda’s.  The EU not only considered to be the three formal institutions but including the responsibilities of EU civil and political society organizations as well.

Since the EU continues to be work in progress, this outline is presented in that spirit.  For the 50th anniversary, NIMD published a book on the subject of the theme of my introduction:  Democracy:  Europe’s Core Value?  This book was launched earlier this week by the new Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs Maxime Verhagen.  He questioned the question mark in the title and I agree, since the Berlin Declaration, that can now become an exclamation mark!

To sum up, democracy has been oversold (uncritical complacency), missold (applying too narrow democracy concepts or using democracy promotion for other agendas) but, at the same time, undersold.  There is no alternative for democracy.

Thank you for your attention.

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