by Erin Jones
Southern European states have long been considered the laggards of EU democracy support.
They have generally been more cautious about prioritizing democracy and human rights issues over more realpolitik concerns. They have not invested significant funding in democracy assistance and have mostly been averse to democracy-related sanctions and conditionality. It is widely agreed that the Northern European states have been the most committed to funding for democracy initiatives and assertive diplomatic pressure against authoritarian regimes. And the war in Ukraine has increased the attention given to Eastern European states’ role in pushing for help to Ukrainian democracy and their desire for a strong pushback against authoritarian powers.
Yet current developments mean more focus is needed on southern EU states. Italy’s change of government has amplified concerns about the country’s right-wing turn and commitments to democracy and human rights. Ongoing corruption concerns in Greece pervade the democratic environment. The snap elections in Portugal at the end of January showed the far right making significant gains. Spain is due to take up the presidency of the European Council in June 2023 in an uncertain pre-election period for the country, characterized by the rise of the Vox party and constitutional disputes. So, are southern member states set to be even more of a brake on EU democracy support policies? Or has the geopolitical context boosted their focus on democracy and made the traditional picture look out of date?
All four southern states have introduced new formal commitments and insist they have increasingly bought into the democracy support agenda. Each made commitments at the U.S.–led Summit for Democracy. Spain has signed on to the Team Europe Democracy initiative, although Greece, Italy, and Portugal are not among the fourteen member states to have done so. Some also lead notable, more targeted initiatives to support democracy abroad.
Many of Spain’s efforts feature a regional focus on Latin America. For one, Spain gives technical assistance to parliaments in the region. Moreover, to improve the way it promotes democracy in Latin America, the Spanish Agency for International Development and Cooperation is preparing a program that hosts thematic dialogues in Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, and Uruguay. These dialogues aim to explore further the role of civil society in the region’s democracies and political and governance institutions. In the implementation phase, lessons drawn from these dialogues will be applied to renew projects and programs carried out by the Spanish Cooperation in Latin America. Additionally, Spain has been developing a program geared toward combatting corruption and reinforcing democracy through infrastructure—both digital and physical—in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Thematically, Spain has a notable focus on gender equality. It launched a “feminist foreign policy” in 2021, making it one of the first European countries with a feminist foreign agenda after Sweden pioneered the idea in 2014. The strategy aims to put women’s and girls’ empowerment and gender equality at the center of Spain’s foreign policy. As of the end of 2022, Spain was funding over twenty development cooperation programs dedicated to eliminating gender-based violence. Under the RAISA program, Spain hosts women from Africa and the Mediterranean to showcase initiatives on women’s political and economic empowerment in a series of conferences, workshops, and meetings. These women met with the Spanish foreign minister, the king, the minister of justice, and various parliamentarians from the Congress of Deputies.
At the Summit for Democracy, Portugal pledged its support for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that establishes a new mandate for a special rapporteur for free and fair elections. The government of Portugal has stated its intention to continue promoting anti-corruption measures within the framework of the Conference of Ministers of Justice of Portuguese-Speaking Countries and working to implement the UN Convention Against Corruption. Greece, notably, made only two commitments to external action at the Summit for Democracy: one promoting transparency on transnational landed property transfers and one endorsing the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. Apart from these, Greece’s summit commitments remained domestically oriented and relatively limited in scope.
Southern European states have signed on to some initiatives that promote online freedoms. Italy and Spain are members of the Freedom Online Coalition, which promises member countries’ commitment to promoting and protecting online freedoms both at home and around the world. Portugal, at the Summit for Democracy, pledged to apply for membership in the coalition but has not yet formally joined. Italy and Spain also joined the Counter Ransomware Initiative.
Portugal’s Development Cooperation Strategy 2030 emphasizes the need to protect human rights, promote gender equality, and consolidate and support democracy. New cooperation programs that Portugal adopted in 2022 with Cape Verde and Mozambique make human rights, gender equality, good governance, and civic participation explicit priorities. For Mozambique, Portugal is also preparing programs to strengthen support for counterterrorism and capacity-building efforts. These initiatives aim to counter the financing of terrorism, promote education and the development of local communities, uphold justice, and foster interreligious and intercommunal dialogue.
Italy has pledged to support electoral assistance initiatives, like election observation missions, alongside support for efforts aimed at combatting sexual and gender-based violence, like the Call to Action on the Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies. The country will also contribute to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to assist work in Afghanistan. More concretely, Italy appointed its first special envoy for the human rights of LGBTQ people, making it only the third country in the world to do so (after the United Kingdom and the United States). In April 2022, the Italian Presidency of the Committee of Ministers and the Council of Europe co-organized an event discussing how artificial intelligence will impact democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, held in Rome at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. The Italian government’s recent activities in Afghanistan include a focus on health services for women. Finally, Italy is joining Sweden and Lithuania in an anti-terrorism training mission in Mozambique.
Since the election of Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, the government in Italy has not made any new commitments or notable changes to the country’s democracy support policies. Although the new prime minister has denounced Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and for human rights abuses, she and her party maintain views on minorities, migrants, and LGBTQ people that may lack accordance with international human rights standards. However, it is the administrative branches, rather than high-level leadership, that determine external democracy support initiatives in Italy, so the change in government may have limited effect in this realm.
Some of the southern states have increased their democracy aid in recent years, although they continue to underinvest in this area of official development assistance (ODA) compared to other EU donors.
Italy, through the Connecting Europe Facility, contributed 11 million euros to the European Digital Media Observatory, an independent platform dedicated to combatting disinformation. Beginning as a series of hubs with the lead consortium based in Florence, the observatory is now expanding to all EU member states and Norway. Italy also allocated 2.5 million euros for electoral assistance initiatives and projects abroad for the period 2022–2024; this represents a slight increase from the 2.4 million euros allocated to the same cause for the period 2019–2021. Italy allocated 2 million euros for anti-corruption efforts in Latin America and Africa for 2022–2024. At the Summit for Democracy, Italy committed to providing funding to initiatives striving to protect the rights of LGBTQ people around the world and to contributing to the Global Media Defence Fund, which aims to protect media freedom around the world.
Spain’s future law on Cooperation for Sustainable Development and Global Solidarity will codify the country’s pledge to give 0.7 percent of its gross national income to its ODA by 2030. The plan specifically mentions the need to defend gender equality rights and democracy around the world but does not clarify the portion of development aid that will go to democracy support specifically. Additionally, as part of its Summit for Democracy commitments, Spain is developing a fund, called the Ellas + Fund, to promote gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment. Target countries already selected include Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Peru, and Uruguay.
The ambiguity of funds allocated to democracy support complicates comparative analysis of democracy aid across European countries. Ministries in Nordic countries like Sweden, for example, differentiate relatively well between democracy and nondemocracy aid. Southern European ministries do not distinguish aid as clearly along these lines. This structural variance makes it difficult to say definitively how much more or less each Southern European nation is spending vis-a-vis its northern counterparts. Arguably, the fact that these governments do not track democracy aid closely enough to be able to say exactly how much they are spending implies that democracy support is not a top priority, while budgets like defense are monitored quite granularly.
Sanctions and Conditionality
Southern states are generally still averse to punitive approaches in their democracy support. They have supported tough sanctions against Russia, albeit for the invasion in Ukraine and not strictly related to democracy itself. They have shifted their positioning toward support for Ukraine’s EU candidacy. However, they can still drag their feet on democracy-related decisions in this realm. They are wary of widening the EU global human rights sanctions regime. While they frame the war in Ukraine as part of a broader ideological struggle for democracy, they have forged new partnerships with autocratic regimes for gas supplies—in the case of Italy with Algeria—or migration concerns—in the case of Spain with Morocco.
To replace gas imports previously coming from Russia, in 2022, Italy became Algeria’s new largest gas purchaser. Eni, the Italian multinational gas and oil company, has also signed deals to increase natural gas imports from Angola, Libya, and the Republic of Congo, ignoring human rights concerns in these countries.
Meanwhile, Spain has deepened cooperation with Morocco because of migration concerns. After more than a year of particularly tense Spanish-Moroccan relations, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited Rabat shortly after the invasion of Ukraine to inaugurate “a new stage in relations between the two kingdoms, based on transparency and mutual respect.” Madrid reversed its position on the sovereignty of Western Sahara, the topic at the core of the two countries’ longstanding rift. This shift away from defending the Sahrawi peoples’ right to self-determination sits uneasily with the Spanish government’s rhetoric about the urgent duty to protect democracy. Spain now supports Morocco’s autonomy plan, which goes against UN efforts and is questionable from a democratic perspective. Spain’s cooperation with Morocco has further deepened with the signing of a new accord for joint maritime patrols to control migration.
A closing gap?
These commitments suggest it may be unfair to paint Southern European states as indifferent to democracy policies. It is important to neither caricature their caution nor overly extol Nordic states’ idealism.
To some extent, southern states may appear to be less of a drag on democracy support not because they have really stepped up their democracy efforts but because other member states have scaled back their democracy ambitions in recent years. Most European states are cautious about democracy-related sanctions or conditionality, and so southern EU states are not unique in their hesitance to pursue more punitive measures to protect and support democracy abroad. In Sweden, the new ruling coalition made up of right-wing parties, supported by the far-right Sweden Democrats, has already abandoned the country’s feminist foreign policy and more broadly raises doubts about whether the country will continue to lead the EU in democracy.
Southern states remain cautious about many elements of democracy policy, but they are not necessarily out of line from other states in this. The EU and its member states have never punished human rights abuses very strongly. Trade interests, alliance structures, and context have always conditioned foreign policy responses to human rights atrocities. The war in Ukraine has reminded us that the democracy support agenda can be sidelined by strategic considerations in most European states. As geopolitical tensions rise, most EU member states turn a blind eye to rhetorical, values-based commitments and deepen partnerships with repressive autocratic regimes to address more immediate interests at the expense of the long-term project of supporting democracy abroad.
So, the standard picture of Northern European democracy supporters standing in stark contrast to Southern realists looks somewhat simplistic and overstated. Yet there are still differences. Southern EU states differ in that they do not see democracy as core to their strategic interests to quite the degree that, for example, the Danish or Swedish governments do. The fact that Nordic foreign ministries track their democracy support spending relatively granularly while Southern European ministries hardly track it at all reflects this discrepancy.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have stressed the need for democracies to band together in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Nordic countries have painted global democratic decline as a leading threat to peace and development. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe have been the most steadfast in framing the war in Ukraine as an ideological struggle to defend democratic values. States whose histories include dictatorship under the Soviet Union see defense against Russia as the top security priority, with Putin’s aggression an obvious and immediate danger to their own sovereignty.
Southern EU states have not quite bought into this security-democracy nexus. Their geographic positioning as entry points to Europe for migrants crossing the Mediterranean or the Atlantic make southern EU states especially concerned with migration as a threat to national security. The potential for increased migration due to the war’s exacerbation of the hunger crisis has made these concerns only more prominent. In the current geopolitical context, Eastern European perspectives align more with the democracy support agenda, while Southern European views more often clash with it.
In sum, Southern European states have in many ways upgraded their focus on democracy and the empirical record shows they are not complete outliers, although they are still not among the states most enthusiastic about democracy support. An unresolved key question is whether these states draw the conclusion from the Ukraine war that democracy is a geostrategic imperative and, in this way, move closer to northern EU states in the use of their funding and diplomatic leverage. A complete European democratic response to the war needs a democracy commitment from these states as well as from the states whose policies have attracted more attention in this area.
*research analyst in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe
**first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu