Inbox: Reviving the Transatlantic Democratic Agenda

Photo: US vice-president Joe Biden official visits to the European Parliament. Credit: European Parliament
Photo: US vice-president Joe Biden official visits to the European Parliament. Credit: European Parliament

After years of neglect, the incoming U.S. administration has an opportunity to reboot the democracy agenda alongside its European partners.

Inbox is a CEPA series on priorities for the next administration – and its allies.

While the United States has historically promoted democracy as an instrument of its national security, it has in recent years slowly outsourced responsibility for norm-building and norm-enforcement to the EU. Washington elites remained committed to ideals, but explicit leadership on these issues took the back seat to geopolitics.

The arrival of Donald Trump on the scene four years ago pushed these existing trends to the extreme. “America First” meant values explicitly took a back seat to interests.

For its part, the EU has been criticized for the ineffectiveness with which it has kept its own members in line with its own broad democracy commitments, and for its weak responses to democratic rollbacks just beyond its borders. But the truth is that this failure is a joint failure. Europeans have indeed fallen short in their own right. But their loss of faith in America’s ability to defend and promote democratic values has been crippling, making concerted action more difficult. American global leadership remains vital if democratic values are to thrive.

Hearteningly, support for democracy has been on the rise among citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. Support for democracy is especially high in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey — all three victims of democratic backsliding in recent years. There is a real appetite for a fresh new democracy agenda. The incoming Biden administration, which has committed to putting democratic renewal at the top of its agenda, will have a lot to work with.

Here are several suggestions for where to start:

First, officials in Washington and Brussels should establish a mechanism through which they coordinate messaging to members of the transatlantic community that have strayed from democratic norms and the rule of law. This mechanism should exist at both the executive and legislative levels. The structuring of the EU Global Magnitsky Act, to which US policymakers have had input, can serve as a template for how to do joint action. The European Parliament, which has taken an increasingly active role in drafting strong rule of law criteria within the EU, could be the ideal institutional partner to promote more transatlantic coordination.

To increase dialogue and agreement on fundamental democratic principles and institutions, the European Commission should invite the US to participate in side-discussions during the Conference on the Future of Europe. While this is an instrument to enhance EU citizens’ participation in conversations about the EU’s future, US officials and civil society actors should be present. The United States has supported European integration from its inception and needs to re-engage with the fundamental conversations happening on the European continent.

At a practical level, US and EU policymakers should work together to implement a set of common rules and criteria for sanctioning bad actors, regulating illicit financial flows, and mandating beneficial ownership transparency. On the EU’s side, financial assistance to member states needs to be linked to compliance with these regulations. And as the EU works on developing a wider set of rule of law conditionalities for its own member, it should work together with the United States to develop similar rules for financial assistance, loans, and investment projects that go out through multilateral institutions. Rule of law conditionalities for allocating EU funds are exceedingly popular among Europeans. This enthusiasm for supranational rule of law standards should be leveraged for concerted transatlantic action. Tackling global kleptocracy can only happen if the West as a whole has a coherent plan of attack.

Finally, both the EU and the United States need to work better together in promoting democratic standards in aspirant members of NATO and the EU, as well as in other regions further afield. The European Union External Action Service should coordinate with the US State Department on developing strategic goals and common positions. A starting point could be starting joint work on the implementation of the European Democracy Action Plan.

A healthy liberal world order hinges on a transatlantic consensus on democratic rules of the road. If Western allies can’t get their act together, Russia and China will have license to shape the world in their authoritarian image.

November 18, 2020