Ashton’s shallow view of ‘deep democracy’

A member of the UN press corps reports on the EU foreign minister’s undemocratic plans for North Africa.

Hours after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of Egypt, the European Union issued a statement welcoming his decision. The statement – issued jointly by the EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, and the EU foreign minister, Catherine Ashton – is a staid piece of work. It praises ‘the courage of the Egyptian people’ and anticipates ‘deeper reforms and an orderly transition to democracy’. Even so, it was a marked departure from the carefully hedged remarks Ashton made only days earlier.

Last week, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Ashton sat down with a group of journalists to talk about the future of the European Union but she strayed off-topic, insisting on explaining what she saw as the EU’s role in north Africa. At the heart of her talk was a plea for more time to bring about a democratic system. ‘Democracy is a process, not a moment’, she kept saying.

Ashton said that the EU would push for ‘deep democracy’ in Egypt. It would focus on institution-building; it would fund NGOs and agricultural projects; it would invest in education and election-monitoring. Once that process was in place, Ashton said, the Egyptian people would be ready to take their fate into their own hands and decide who would lead them.

In other words, Ashton stalled – and suggested it’s actually the EU which should decide when Egyptians are ready to determine their own fate. She said: ‘Stability’s got to be in the process. I’ve described it as “deep democracy”… if you’re going to do it, you have to be able to put in place the capacity for people to be able to have that democracy. You have to build the institutions, you have to support the engines, you have to make sure human rights are respected. You often have to look at the constitution, you have to look at the courts.’

Ashton did not address the temporal disconnect between institution-building – presumably a decades-long process – and the tense, immediate stand-off taking place in Tahrir Square. How long, exactly, were the Egyptians supposed to wait while the EU built up a ‘deep democracy’ in their country and prepared them to be fit voters? What concrete steps was the EU taking to begin this amazing process? Ashton never said. She mentioned democracy’s highest ideals, but said absolutely nothing to further them.

Finally, one Lebanese journalist pointed out that Egypt is an ancient society with well-established institutions and a newly empowered electorate. All the country needs now is early elections. Would the EU support a call for early elections?

Apparently, the answer was no. ‘I don’t tell Egyptians when they should have elections’, Ashton snapped. She added that, while some might think Egypt has an established society ‘some human rights groups’ would disagree. She didn’t seem to notice the contradiction between first calling on Egyptians to determine their own future, and then insisting that they don’t have what’s needed to do so.

This kind of mixed-message waffling is pretty familiar to us in the United Nations press corps. For instance in early February, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, went to London where, presumably under Western influence, he called for immediate change in Egypt. ‘If any transition is to be taken, it should be done now’, Ban told reporters in London. But back in New York, the Russian ambassador scolded him for attacking a ‘friendly’ country, and Ban promptly ate his words, calling merely for ‘a genuine dialogue’ between Egypt’s leaders and its people. (Ban’s about-face also provided Egypt’s UN envoy a sorely-needed moment of triumph. ‘The position that was expressed by the secretary-general today, I believe is the position of the secretary-general’, he told the press, smirking.)

Some would argue that any representative of an international organisation has to be a little bit mealy-mouthed, because they have to stick to shared views and hold a common ground. The likes of Ashton and Ban are beholden to the member states that appointed them. And it’s not easy to find common ground when, as in the EU’s case, 27 countries are involved.

In such an organisation, some members are bound to go off-message or to break the façade of unity. It didn’t help the EU’s case that the French prime minister, François Fillon, had let Mubarak buy him a long cruise up the Nile just a few weeks before the protests reached critical mass. Fillon later admitted that he had also flown in Mubarak’s private jet. The French defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, recently did the same thing in Tunisia. Sarkozy now says that his cabinet should stick to France for their vacation plans.

After Fillon got back from his vacation, France got together with Germany and the UK to issue a statement noting the ‘legitimate grievances’ of the Egyptian people and calling for significant change in the country. The statement, while far from revolutionary, was still more determined than anything Ashton had yet said. And it came only five days before the EU summit for European heads of state and government in Brussels on 4 February.

What is the point of the European Union if it cannot speak swiftly and with a united voice? More and more people seem to be wondering this, and Ashton has responded by setting off on a face-saving goodwill tour. Last week’s visit to the UN was one of her first stops. At the time of writing, she is in Tunisia, and she is expected in Egypt soon. And she keeps updating her message as she travels, in the hopes of pleasing her audience. It will be interesting to see how time, and circumstance, change her tune along the way.

Kate Prengel is a journalist based at the UN in New York.

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