14 January 2021
Where are you, EU?
The free (and unfree) world needs you!
By Neil Tidmarsh
It’s been a bad week for freedom and democracy. No, that isn’t a comment on the events in Washington. In fact it’s been a good week for freedom and democracy in the USA: a massive and volatile protest was accommodated (in however ramshackle a way) rather than suppressed; law and order ultimately prevailed; and the results of a free and fair election were upheld.
Other parts of the world weren’t so lucky.
In Venezuela, a new parliament was inaugurated this week, following elections which most of the world condemned as neither free nor fair. This completes a hat trick for the Maduro regime: the 2017 election to a new Constituent Assembly (an alternative parliament set up by Maduro to side-line the existing parliament which was inconveniently full of opposition politicians) and the 2018 presidential election were also condemned as neither free nor fair.
Prior to this week’s development, most of the international community refused to recognise Maduro as a legitimate president and instead acknowledged Juan Guaidó (the head of the parliament and thus the only fairly elected national leader) as interim president until a non-fraudulent presidential election could take place.
But the newly ‘elected’ parliament is now packed with Maduro loyalists. So Guaidó has lost his only political power base in the country and his campaign to restore freedom and democracy to Venezuela is looking increasingly desperate. It’s all the more vital, therefore, that the international community continues to support him. The country is in ruins, its economy wrecked, its people dependent on remittances sent home by the five million citizens who have fled abroad in recent years, dissent is ruthlessly crushed and Maduro’s regime survives only through the support of his army and of his allies China, Russia and Iran. International support for Guaidó and for what his overthrown parliament represents is all that remains to remind the Venezuelans that there is a just and better alternative.
The UK and the USA do indeed continue to acknowledge Guaidó as interim president. But other governments are beginning to back away from him. Neighbouring Latin American countries, perhaps looking for some sort of compromise to solve the problem on their doorstep, failed to describe Guaidó as interim president in their condemnation of the recent parliamentary elections.
Less understandably and more alarmingly, the EU has also dropped its recognition of Guaidó as interim president. Its condemnation of the elections simply described him as just one of the “political and civil society actors striving to bring back democracy to Venezuela”, in the words of its foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. The European Commission’s decision was backed by the heads of all 27 member states, according to its spokesman Peter Stano. But it’s hard to believe that Spain, for one, found it easy to fall in line with it. And the European parliament’s vice president Dita Charanzová remains puzzled and angered by it; the parliament has always supported Guaidó, she says, and many MEPs regret that the Commission has abandoned him.
In China, mass arrests were made against democracy campaigners in Hong Kong last week, under the repressive national security laws imposed there after last summer’s crack-down on pro-democracy demonstrations and protests. At least 53 people were detained, apparently for planning a campaign to win all 35 directly-elected seats in the 70-seat legislative council (whenever elections might take place – they were cancelled last September and haven’t yet been rescheduled).
Britain, Australia, Canada and the USA issued a joint statement this week denouncing the arrests. It expressed “serious concern” and urged respect for Hong Kong’s “legally guaranteed rights and freedoms”. But so far the EU has remained silent about this latest attack on freedom and democracy by Beijing. Significantly, the suggestion by Lord Patten of Barnes that the EU should show solidarity by rejecting the commercial pact it’s about to ratify with China has apparently fallen on deaf ears. The same request by both the current White House and the incoming US president Joe Biden has also been rejected.
The Brexit deal wasn’t the only deal the EU concluded last month following tough and long-drawn-out negotiations. The commercial pact with China has taken eight years to negotiate. Lord Patten and Joe Biden, however, aren’t the only people to think it controversial; many voices within Europe would agree with them. Central European states including Poland think that Joe Biden’s plan for a strong alliance of liberal democracies against China would be a better idea. Belgium is worried that the deal doesn’t make Beijing answerable for human rights abuses. Germany’s Green Party is concerned that China is using the deal to drive a wedge between the EU and the free world headed by the USA. MEPs are unhappy with the way that Germany appears to be pushing the deal through the EU Council. Ambassadors to the EU from nine member states have lodged a number of objections. But “these objections went in one ear and out the other” according to Reinhard Bütikofer, the leader of the parliament’s China delegation. There are fears, no doubt, that the deal might make the EU less willing to confront China over human rights abuses. If the EU’s response (or lack of response) to those 53 arrests is anything to go by, that might be happening already.
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU in 2012 for “advancing democracy and human rights”. In 2016, one of the Remainers’ most compelling arguments was that the EU was a beacon of freedom and democracy and all champions of such values should stand together in solidarity, especially in these troubled times, for the sake of the whole world. The events of this week, however, have cast a dark shadow over any claim that the EU is such a champion. Its response to events in Venezuela and Hong Kong has set it apart from the rest of the free West, and its inner tensions and frustrations over these events have emphasised the democratic deficit within its own structure. Of course, individual Europeans and European countries do champion freedom and democracy – but it appears that the EU, with its top-down approach, somehow impairs their ability to project those ideals. And that is bad news for the rest of the world.