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Order from Chaos

EU Election Observation Missions: Europe united (for once)

U.S. policymakers are often irritated by Europe’s inability to act as a single and coherent international actor. They are right to be frustrated. In too many policy areas—with some notable exceptions such as trade and monetary policy—EU member states regularly fail to speak with one voice. Rather, they pursue policymaking through the provincial lenses of their anachronistic national interests.

Foreign policy is a particularly challenging area for Europeans to develop a common approach. The European External Action Service (EEAS) continuously struggles to forge a consensus between national capitals. Yet, even in this realm, there are reasons for hope. The Election Observation Missions (EOMs) deployed over the last 15 years by the European Union to witness electoral processes worldwide offering some inspiring lessons.

EOMs are an important element of soft power projection in EU foreign policy. As a normative actor, Europe is keen to spread its core values through the support of democracy worldwide. Election observation missions provide the EU with an opportunity to gain a sophisticated understanding of current democratic standards in countries around the globe. Through these insights, the EU can better adjust its policymaking in the field of democracy support. 

EU election observation missions set global standards of excellence and can inform EU policymaking in the field of democracy support because of how they are conceptualized and implemented. Crucially, EOMs are not under the control of individual member states. Even though national capitals formally remain in control, European institutions in Brussels have de facto a substantial amount of freedom in this policy area.

The EEAS is responsible for the more strategic and political aspects of election observation missions. This is the case for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it plays a key role in drafting the list of priority countries where EOMs could be deployed. Secondly, the EEAS acts as the “information hub” between the national diplomatic representations in a host country, the EU delegation in the host country and the country and regional desks of the member states within national capitals. Finally, the EEAS (together with the European Commission) can count on the specific expertise of dedicated staff with decades of experience in the field and within international institutions.

When it comes to election observation missions, the Brussels-based supranational institutions of the European Union call the shots.

The European Commission is responsible for the financial, personnel, and technical aspects of EOMs. Firstly and through its Foreign Policy Instrument, the Commission is free to use the funding obtained via the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights as it sees best fit. Secondly, the Foreign Policy Instrument is ultimately responsible for the selection of both short-term and long-term observers as well as for the make-up of the Core Team. Finally, the Foreign Policy Instrument is responsible for technical and security matters. Because of that, it plays a key role in organizing the logistics of each EOM.

The European Parliament has traditionally enjoyed a limited role in European foreign policy. However, it plays a significant function in the field, as a member of the European Parliament is always appointed as head of mission for each EOM. The European Parliament is also instrumental in broadening the scope of democratic support beyond election observation missions themselves. This is the case thanks to the Comprehensive Democracy Support Approach developed by its Democracy and Elections Unit within the Directorate for Democracy Support. This trend is further reinforced by the recent decision to appoint a “long-term lead Member of the European Parliament” for each host country where EOMs have been or will be deployed. 

Unlike the Brussels institutions, national governments have effectively no meaningful control over EU policymaking in the field of election observation missions. This is because national governments don’t have adequate mechanisms to set the agenda or to evaluate the process; because national governments might struggle to establish a common position to present to the Brussels institutions; and because the overwhelming amount of expertise and human resources available on the subject is based in Brussels rather than in national capitals. 

U.S. policymakers and global practitioners wishing to engage with European election observation policy should make no mistake when addressing key players within the European Union. Unlike in countless other policy areas, European national governments are rather insignificant actors. When it comes to election observation missions, the Brussels-based supranational institutions of the European Union call the shots.

For more information on this subject, read the recently-released paper “EU election observation policy: A supranationalist transatlantic bridge?

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