Partnering for democracy: protecting the democratic order in post-Brexit Europe

EU flag. Photo: © European Union 2013 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Working Paper

Executive summary

The EU has been a key actor in the democratisation of the European continent and in the protection of the culture of human rights in Europe. To do so, the EU has used strategies and tools such as linkage action vis-a-vis third countries, democratic conditionality for accession to the Union and other forms of leverage, functional cooperation with third countries, the creation of the rule-of-law mechanism and the enactment of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

As shown in this Working Paper, a potential British exit from the EU might have detrimental effects on the capacity of both the EU and the UK to protect and promote democracy in the continent and beyond. To palliate these detrimental effects, institutionalised forms of cooperation between both parties to protect democracy are proposed, thus creating a ‘democratic partnership’ which could be open to other democratic European countries. Such forms of partnership are not unprecedented, with the EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement providing an excellent example of this type of cooperation.

The EU-UK democratic partnership can have different levels of ambition. In a less ambitious approach it would consist of a series of soft-law agreements and declarations, together with modest budgetary commitments for activities of democracy promotion. In a more ambitious formulation, it would also count on institutions that facilitate cooperation between the parties. In the most ambitious approach it could be part of a more comprehensive political or economic partnership between the EU and the UK.

A British exit from the EU could translate into a loss of funding for the direct linkage activities of the latter. In parallel, the UK could lose international influence and indirect linkage capacity after Brexit. To prevent this, a budgetary commitment for linkage activities as well as indirect linkage cooperation is proposed in the frame of the democratic partnership.

Democratic conditionality for accession to the Union has been a particularly powerful tool for the democratisation of the European continent. After Brexit, the EU will remain an attractive organisation for third countries, and the prospect of accession will continue to function as a strong incentive for democratisation. However, Brexit might have marginal but negative effects on this incentive if the UK offers authoritarian states stable forms of cooperation. To avoid this, as part of the democratic partnership, both the UK and the EU should commit to uphold democratic and human-rights values in their relations with third countries, especially when they involve a supranational dimension of cooperation. Furthermore, a strong form of partnership with the EU, including institutionalised forms of foreign-policy coordination, could prevent a lenient attitude by the UK towards undemocratic states.

A British exit from the EU could also mean a loss of funding for leverage activities, as well as suboptimal leverage coordination between the EU and the UK. This might affect the efficiency of this form of democracy promotion. To minimise such problems, a funding commitment by the parties for leverage activities is proposed. It is also proposed that, as part of the partnership, the parties have a modicum of coordination of foreign policy, through institutionalised consultation mechanisms, to push a pro-democracy agenda when possible. Finally, the prospect of membership of the democratic partnership, or of any other form of partnership between the parties, might become for third states an incentive to democratise, thus creating a new, powerful form of leverage.

Britain’s exit from the EU should in principle have a less dramatic impact on activities of functional cooperation. Nonetheless, as part of the democratic partnership, the EU and the UK should be open to undertaking joint activities of functional cooperation with third states when joint action and complementary know-how can effectively help raise democratic standards in such countries.

Once out of the EU the UK will have no veto power in the context of the Rule of Law mechanism of Art.7TEU. However, it can effectively afford sanctioned states with diplomatic, political and economic cooperation, thus diminishing the effectiveness of EU action. To avoid this, there should be a commitment of cooperation between the EU and the UK for the preservation of democracy in Member States of the EU, using joint diplomatic action in which the British approach to these countries is complementary to EU sanctions. This cooperation could be institutionalised in bilateral or multilateral forums. Furthermore, a highly institutionalised democratic partnership should have its own rule-of-law mechanism.

After Brexit, British citizens might lose the human-rights protection afforded by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. However, as part of the democratic partnership, this Charter should continue to apply to action taken as a development of the clauses of the very partnership, as well as in any residual application of EU law in the UK. Furthermore, members of the democratic partnership should be allowed to opt-in the Charter and be bound by it also in their internal law.

The democratic partnership might become the seed of a powerful tool of democracy protection in Europe, thus contributing to the stability of the continent. Ideally, it should be agreed in parallel to the Art.50TEU negotiations about the British exit from the Union. Furthermore, any political or economic Brexit deal between the parties should be conditional to both agreeing to the democratic partnership. Modelled on the EU-Canada Strategic Partnership Agreement, the EU-UK trade and economic deals could include a termination clause in the case of gross violation by any of the parties of human rights or democratic standards.

Pablo José Castillo Ortiz
Elcano Royal Institute & University of Sheffield
 | @pj_castillo_

Funded by the University of Sheffield, Social Sciences Partnerships, Impact and Knowledge Exchange (SSPIKE) Knowledge Exchange Impact and Opportunities (KEIO) Scheme (funded, in turn, by the ESRC IAA).

EU flag. Photo: © European Union 2013 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)