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Europe's Democratic Deficit
[Opinion] EU democracy for export: do as we say, not as we do
John Horvath (jhorv)     Print Article 
Published 2007-06-19 04:41 (KST)   
Throughout the centuries, Europe has always regarded itself as a cornerstone of civilization. More recently, it sees itself as a bastion of democracy. In many ways, the notion of the European Union (EU) is considered by many as a culmination of all this. Yet two events of late have demonstrated that the EU is anything but democratic in either word or action. This applies to both internal matters and external relations.

Perhaps one of the most shameful foreign policy positions taken by the EU is with regard to Palestine. In many ways, the internal violence and bloodshed which now occurs on a regular basis in the West Bank and Gaza is directly a result of the policies followed by the EU and other "mediators" in the Middle East. Despite the fact that the elections which had brought the former Hamas-led government to power in 2006 was judged as free and fair, the EU along with other Western powers refused to recognize the result. In essence, it was telling the people of Palestine that you have the right to vote, but only to vote for who we want you to vote for. This twisted form of democracy was reinforced by an economic boycott. In effect, it attempted to economically strangle the popularly elected government.

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As if all this wasn't enough, as Hamas tried to govern despite these setbacks, diplomatic barriers were constantly put in its way. Meanwhile, supporters of the opposition Fatah, acting like sore losers, were allowed to engage in anti-democratic behavior while the EU simply turned its collective head and looked the other way.

As events spiraled out of control, the EU-backed Fatah president decided finally to dissolve parliament (what was left of it) and install a government of his choice, one friendly to the EU and other Western countries. Political and financial support immediately resumed as the EU and other Western countries hoped that the Palestinian Authority (PA) could somehow regain a form of control -- without Hamas.

One of the main justifications for the EU's refusal to support a democratically elected Hamas government is that Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization. This belies the fact that the organizational structure of Hamas is complex, with both military and political wings. It's not all that different to the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein in Ireland, and yet the attempt to bring Irish "terrorists" into the political process (albeit amid much protest) has led to some progress in Northern Ireland. Although the situation there is far from ideal, it is nowhere near to the chaos that once was.

The same perhaps could have been done with the PA. If more support were given to Hamas to pursue the political process and for Fatah to accept democratic norms and wait for the next election, then the situation may have been quite different than what it has now become. Instead of building democracy in the Middle East, the EU has contributed to further violence and bloodshed.

This isn't the first time, however, that the EU has put its own self-interest ahead of its lofty ideals of democracy and human rights. A blatant example of the EU's warped foreign policy was with Algeria in 1992. At that time, the EU simply ignored the fact that the Algerian army invalidated the first democratic elections in the country because the Islamic party had won a clear majority. Since then, the ruling party, the National Liberation Front, has held power often through widespread electoral fraud. Since the EU gets a substantial amount of its oil from the country, it has remained relatively quiet on corruption and human rights abuses in Algeria.

The Home Front

Yet it's not only with countries outside its collective border that the EU applies such double standards. Within the EU itself, eurocrats prefer to put democracy and human rights on the shelf for the sake of self-interest. A case in point is with Hungary.

Hungary has been going through some turbulent times lately, ever since the present government won an election in what has been regarded by some as a fraudulent vote. The discontent many feel was made apparent in the police violence and massive street protests which occurred last year in September and October. The situation has since worsened as economic austerity measures (also called "economic reforms") add to a sense of political frustration.

In addition to this, changes made to the public media have led to the public interest being overshadowed by government propaganda. Hundreds of journalists have been fired in a supposed restructuring program, and new formats for television and radio appear to give emphasis to trivial programming, thereby conveying less information. Meanwhile, despite the need for a new law to depoliticize public media and improve the functioning of the National Radio and Television Commission, drafts for a new media law tend to focus excessively on stringent regulation of electronic media, including the Internet.

The fear and frustration in Hungary is such that some feel they can now only safely protest outside the country. This was apparent over the weekend when Hungarians demonstrated in Vienna against the Hungarian government and its policies. Not only did Hungarians from across the border attend, including prominent members of civil society (actors, doctors, etc.), but also Hungarians from as far away as California (USA) and Australia. This demonstration coincided with a visit to the Austrian capital by the president of Hungary, Laszlo Solyom. According to organizers, the purpose of the demonstration was to draw attention to the outside world (and the EU) to what was happening in Hungary.

There is no doubt that the government of Ferenc Gyurcany has stretched democracy in Hungary to the breaking point. The government has continually worked outside of established democratic institutions, such as when a "development cabinet" responsible for the management of approximately 8 trillion forint (31.5 billion euros) in EU subsidies was created outside of the government and reported directly to the prime minister. This, in itself, is a reflection of the democratic shortcomings of the EU as well. Not only doesn't the EU have formal mechanisms at its disposal to encourage government reforms in new EU member states once the accession process is complete, but it's unable to ensure that EU money is channeled to where it's supposed to go. This was one of the major problems which led to a farmer's strike in 2005, where EU payments were not being forwarded promptly by the government.

Ironically, one of the main reasons that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe rushed to join the EU, apart from visions of economic prosperity and security from a resurgent Russia, was as a form of protection from abuse by their own government. It was felt by many that membership in the EU would force their governments to abide by progressive environmental and consumer legislation, and that democratic norms and human rights would also be enforced.

In Hungary, these hopes have since been dashed: the country is being used as a dumping ground for trash from Western Europe (namely Germany) while neighboring countries such as Austria are able to pollute freely along the border, where the pollution ultimately makes its way to Hungary; consumer legislation doesn't mean much as more and more dangerous and toxic products have made their way into the country, everything from tainted meat from Bavaria to poisoned peppers from Spain; rubber bullets and police officers on horseback wielding sabers are allowed to be used by the authorities as a means to disperse non-violent protesters.

From all this, it's quite obvious that the EU has its priorities elsewhere. When it comes to economic matters, it's able to put pressure on member states in order to conform to established norms; when it comes to basic democratic governance, it appears unwilling to act. Yet where there is a will, there is a way. In 2000, Joerg Haider's Freedom Party and the Austrian People's Party joined to form a coalition government in Austria. This caused widespread outrage both in Austria and the rest of Europe. The heads of government of the other then-14 EU members decided to cease cooperation with the Austrian government. For several months, other national leaders refused to shake hands and socialize with members of the Schussel government.

Although some may argue that EU leaders soon saw that their measures were counterproductive and that the situation returned to normality soon after, others maintain that the EU action later helped to decrease the popularity of the Freedom Party and also to prevent such coalitions in other EU countries. Either way, the EU could be commended on doing something at least.

In the case of Hungary, however, it's clear that the EU hasn't done anything. Democracy has taken a backseat to so-called economic "reform." This is because there is still some business to do in Hungary. For instance, private insurers are looking into entering the country's healthcare system, and there is still some prime real estate to privatize, such as the country's railways and post offices.

Yet eurocrats in Brussels are playing a very dangerous game. No one knows what will happen to the EU if a member state suddenly experiences an economic meltdown, as many expect Hungary might do if present trends continue. If the EU's failure at promoting democracy in the Middle East is any indication, then Europe's double standard toward democracy will have led to chaos at home as well as abroad.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter John Horvath

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