Ensuring the Future of Europe: The Decentring Approach to the EU’s Human Rights and Democracy Strategies

Crossroads Europe |

This article is based on research presented at the UACES Graduate Forum Conference 2019.

Patrik Taufar argues that taking a decentring approach to the EU’s human rights policies may promote engagement and ensure the effectiveness of the policy. He frames this argument within the question of the future of Europe and what steps must be taken to ensure the existence of ‘a next European century’.

The UACES Graduate Forum Conference 2019 theme posed the question ‘What for the next European Century?’ However, this presupposes the existence of a next century that will belong to Europe and Europeans – one in which Europe is an autonomous actor able steering its internal policies, while being a decisive global player.

My point of departure is that this presupposition needs challenging. Europe and its major political organisation – the European Union (EU) – are facing complex and multifaceted internal and external challenges of policy incoherence, normative disunity or insufficient geopolitical strategy. We should be asking a different question: How to ensure that there will be a next European century? In other words, how can the EU ensure it is capable of being an autonomous, self-reflexive and sovereign global actor in the future?

My contribution to this issue is situated in the realm of the EU´s external human rights policy (EHRP). Findings from a recent large-scale research project, Frame, show that this policy suffers from a series of complex and interlinked challenges. Vulnerability in this realm is especially pertinent due to the fact that human rights are a fundamental value of the EU´s semi-constitutional order. Therefore, weaknesses here easily undermine the legitimacy, actorness and the credibility of the EU in the world.

A particular danger to the EU´s human rights policies, is the effectiveness challenge. This denotes the problem of the questionable positive impact of the EU´s EHRP, including specific incentives and programmes. Put simply, if the EU´s flagship policy – external human rights promotion – does not produce a measurable positive impact, this is a serious problem not just for the EU´s budget, but also for its global credibility and future ambitions.

To avoid empty promises from the EU´s EHRP and to boost the EU’s credibility, new approaches and remedies are needed to tackle the effectiveness challenge. The effectiveness discourse of external policies was, and still is, predominantly remedied by the search for institutional coherence. But this approach only reacts to ineffectiveness arising from incoherent conduct of the EU and its member states’ institutions. Put briefly, it searches for internal reasons and internal remedies. However, it is also essential to pay attention to external reasons and remedies to the externally inflicted ineffectiveness of the EU´s EHRP.

The EHRP´s ineffectiveness is in part due to normative contestation: the fact that other actors have different opinions and approaches to human rights promotion in their own societies and cultures. Although the concept of human rights has no single universal interpretation, it is a widely-accepted concept used by actors who hold various understandings and prioritisations of what these rights mean and how they should be upheld. In this context, it is appropriate to consider the recently developed decentring approach.

The decentring approach is the latest incarnation of a more general drive to combat eurocentrism. Specifically, it is an approach in development which entails three basic steps: Provincialisation (relativization of the centrality of European perception, practices, attitudes and policies); Engagement (with other actors and their unique modes of perception and practice) and Reconstruction (with knowledge of the particularity of our practices, and the richness and originality of the practices of others to reconstruct our own standpoints and conduct).

The primary intention of the decentring approach was to change the practices and patterns of analysis in European Studies. I aim to build on this by turning towards a decentring of actual EU policy, with the hope of opening new paths for more effective human rights promotion, and thereby contributing to securing the EU´s actorness and credibility in the world.

Human Rights and Democracy Country Strategies (HRDCS) are particular human rights instruments that act as experimental loci for decentring EU´s EHRP. HRDCS combine two crucial things: firstly, the EU´s substantive strategy that might be provincialised and, simultaneously, HRDCS act as a direct meeting point with a specific third country – a platform where the EU might start engagement and discussions with the Others (representatives of third countries, foreign cultures and different values).

In my empirical research, I ask two main questions with the aim of identifying opportunities for the application of the decentring approach on this policy instrument. Firstly, how are the HRDCS drafted? And secondly, what is the role of the respective third country in the process of HRDCS drafting? Do they have an opportunity to ’upload’ or directly integrate their human rights strategies into the EU´s HRDCS?

My findings show that HRDCS are strictly confidential, they are part of the EU´s own strategic policy instruments, and the EU officials presuppose that the third countries would not wish to “upload” their human rights priorities into the EU´s HRDCS.

HRDCS are obviously not decentred, since they are inward-looking instruments unprepared for engagement with the Others. But, applying decentring to HRDCS could prompt the necessary Copernican turn in the EU´s strategic policymaking. Eventually, it may open the path for better effectiveness through more vivid involvement of the Others in the EU´s EHRP, and better approximation between the EU´s external and the third country’s internal human rights practices and goals.

The Copernican turn inflicted by decentring would ideally lead to challenging several presuppositions: Should the EU´s human rights strategies be confidential? If so, does that mean the EU has exclusive, secret approaches to improve human rights records in third countries? Would it not it be better to extend the ownership of the HRDCS and create a sense of co-ownership of the HRDCS with the respective third country? Would it not be better to fuse our human rights strategies with theirs in order to achieve better effectiveness? And finally, is it true that third countries would not be interested in including their own human rights priorities in the strategy of a powerful global player?

Our original question asked for solutions for how to secure the EU´s global actorness. A basic outline of decentring the EHRP shows that it has the potential to help change Europeans’ perspectives on themselves and to transform the character of the EU´s policymaking.

The EU´s global actorness will be secured if vital policies prove effective. In the case of the EHRP, this means more dialogical, sensitive, openminded, collaborative and, importantly, less Eurocentric approaches. Decentring may serve as the necessary framework for identifying a practical path to these ends.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of the UACES Graduate Forum, UACES, JCER, or the European Commission. 

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Patrik Taufar | @PatrikTaufar

Patrik Taufar is a doctoral researcher at Masaryk University in Brno, focusing on human rights theory, historiography and policymaking with application to EU´s external policy. He studied political science at Masaryk University, Human Rights and Democratisation at Global Campus of Human Rights in Venice-Lido and European Studies at KU Leuven. He collected practical experience during internships within European Commission DG NEAR and OSCE/ODIHR, also he serves as international election observer with ODIHR Election observation missions.

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