By Benjamin Ledwon on January 5, 2013
Descriptions of the European Union’s foreign policy often focus on its normative power as a promoter of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. While the EU has achieved remarkable successes in promoting democracy in its immediate neighbourhood, it will be argued that the EU’s normative foreign policy has enjoyed less success within a wider global context.
Mr Ledwon does not mention the strong possibility that European Union policy is mainly driven by profit interests of multinational corporations, often at odds with democracy. And that European Union talk about democracy is often just propaganda.
Ledwon is correct about European Union policy not bringing democracy within a wider global context, as his example of Bahrain shows.
However, Ledwon does not prove his remark “the EU has achieved remarkable successes in promoting democracy in its immediate neighbourhood” at all. There are many arguments against it. From media censorship, homophobia and racism in EU member state Hungary; to neo-nazism in member state Latvia; to the rise of violent neo-nazism in member state Greece as a consequence of destructive European Union “austerity” policies; to war, criminal organ trade, criminal trafficking of women and anti-Roma racism in Kosovo, in the “immediate neighbourhood” of the EU.
Using the example of Bahrain, with particular focus on the protests from 2011, it will be demonstrated that the EU’s normative power in promoting democracy has limitations. The first section conceptualises the EU’s status as a normative power with particular emphasis on democracy promotion. Following a discussion of the political situation in Bahrain after the 2011 protests, the EU’s response will be criticised as insufficient, failing in its normative aspirations. The essay proceeds to identify the difficulties of democracy promotion in Bahrain, given the country’s internal sectarian division which is complicated by external power competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Furthermore, Bahrain’s status as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is presented as an obstacle for democracy promotion, based on the GCC’s fundamental rejection of democratic reform in combination with the EU’s dependency on the GCC. Lastly, the essay criticizes the absence of a unified European policy framework to promote democracy in the Gulf region, before concluding that, in the light of these challenges, it is highly unlikely that the EU will be able to successfully promote democratic reform in Bahrain.
Europe as a ‘normative power’ and its Failures in Bahrain
“Developing and consolidating democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights” are key aims of the European Union’s foreign policy, as stated in the Treaty of Maastricht. The European Union actively promotes what it considers as good governance, driven by a conviction that democracy is essential for establishing peaceful international relations and prosperity. The European Security Strategy highlights this, stating that the “quality of international society depends on the quality of governments that are its foundations”. According to Youngs and Cofman-Wittes the EU favours a “long-term, gradual and comprehensive” strategy in fostering the mentioned values. Hence, rather than pursuing short-term policies based on narrow notions of power, the EU seeks to adopt a normative approach to foreign policy through the active promotion of principles such as democratic governance, the rule of law and human rights.
The Government of Bahrain fails to meet said criteria of good governance as defined by the European Union. Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who acceded the throne in 1999, initially introduced measures to democratise the previously hereditary emirate. The National Action Charter, which was endorsed in a public referendum from 2001, pronounced the country a constitutional monarchy and promised the reconstitution of a bicameral parliament. The government failed, however, to bring about meaningful democratising reforms. Far from being a democracy, Bahrain’s political system is dominated by the King who enjoys unrestricted power over all three branches of government. The right to freedom of association, although made explicit in the country’s constitution, is restricted in practice since “the formation of political parties is not allowed.” Likewise, freedom of expression is limited in Bahrain. After the protests from 2011, for instance, the government increased Internet censorship and blocked online traffic, leading to a “drop of 20% of internet use”.
The protests in Bahrain from 2011 accentuated deep-rooted problems of Bahrain’s political system: firstly, the country’s division into a Sunni governing elite and an under-represented Shia majority has resulted in far-reaching frustration among Shia population. Secondly, the government lacks popular support and legitimacy and is consequently forced to rely upon a repressive state apparatus. The government’s response to the 2011 protests exemplifies this – thirty five people died as a result of police or military violence, while 600 citizens were arrested. Reports of systematic torture further entrenches the government’s poor human right record.
The European Union failed to address the undemocratic nature of the Bahraini political system and did not react sufficiently to state violence during the Arab Spring. The EU neither strongly condemned the actions of the Bahraini governments, nor implemented specific actions to support pro-democracy activists. The former is epitomised by Catherine Ashton’s failure to address the situation openly in a meeting with senior officials of the Saudi government on April 18, 2011, only one month after the Saudis aided the Bahraini government in a brutal crackdown on protesters. The EU’s lack of political action is exemplified by the EU’s failure to even mention Bahrain in policy documents, such as ‘A new response to a changing neighbourhood’, published in the wake of the Arab Spring. Contradicting its self-appointed role as a normative actor in world affairs, the European Union has “simply turned a blind eye to human rights violations” and the undemocratic nature of the Bahraini state.
- Bahrain dictatorship’s European allies (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- Bahrain, Saudi Arabia dictatorship news (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- Bahrain human rights woman interviewed (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- Arab dictators ‘for democracy’ in Syria (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- European Union disagreements (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- Bahrain regime tries Christmas bribe of British MP (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- The European Union, No Worthy Nobel Winner as it creates havoc, starvation, misery and violence among the peoples of Europe (globalnewsnet.wordpress.com)
- Bahrain meets 2013 with intensified crackdown on protesters (rt.com)