Top EU official: Monitoring elections boosts EU’s image in the world

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The long-standing engagement of the European Union in observing elections around the world will continue during EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton's mandate, the European Commission's acting director-general for foreign affairs (RELEX) Karel Kovanda told EURACTIV in an interview.

Karel Kovanda is acting director-general of the European Commission's department for foreign affairs (RELEX). Returning to Prague after the fall of the communist regime, he began a successful political and diplomatic career which saw him serve as deputy foreign minister of the Czech Republic and more recently its permanent representative to NATO. He joined the Commission in 2005.

He was speaking to Francesco Guarascio.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

One of the ways the European Union exercises its soft power across the world is by monitoring elections to help countries with the democratisation process. Why this focus on elections? 

Elections are not the beginning and end of democracy. The whole concept is much broader. Many say that elections are only the cherry on the cake of the democratic process. We accept this view. And indeed our support for democracy around the world is not limited to elections.

But elections have the capacity to be a very precise activity which can be evaluated better than many other aspects of democracy.

Former External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner was very keen on using this instrument as a real foreign policy tool. It was in line with her political views. Do you think the new EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, will take the same approach?

I have no doubt that Lady Ashton is going to be as enthusiastic a supporter of election observation as Ferrero-Waldner was. Maybe Benita had more opportunities to publicly flag election observation than Ashton has had so far, but this is only because of the tremendous burden of work she has been labouring under from the moment she was installed.

In any case, the organisational chart of the new service counts six managing directors. And one of them is in charge of human rights, electoral observation missions and various other horizontal cross-cutting issues.

How does election observation fit in with the EU's increased role as a global player, which stems from the launch of the European External Action Service?

It will remain a key instrument of EU foreign policy. The role of election observation will not change with the new system. Next year for example, we could go to observe the referendum on the independence of Southern Sudan. If this were to happen, it would be dramatically important.

What is the most important target in sending an election observation mission? Helping a country to become a real democracy, or improving relations with a partner and the economic consequences that would arise from this?

You cannot separate the two things very easily. But sending a mission does not always help to improve relations, because you may end up criticising the elections in very strong language. However, I think is fair to say that the main objective is to support democratic development throughout the world.

How do you react to those who say that in developing countries, the Chinese build bridges while Europe sends observers?

I don't. Why bother reacting? Obviously our involvement in Africa and wherever is not limited to observing elections. Obviously we do as much development work as we possibly can, and this includes building bridges.

We do provide development assistance in a different way than the Chinese do. There are things we cannot do and that the Chinese are prepared to do. We do as much as it is in our power to do. I think providing 60% of global development assistance speaks for itself.

And anyway, countries ask us to observe elections. We do not send observers when we are not invited.

This leads to my next question. To what extent do you think it is true to say that sometimes regimes use observation missions to legitimate their power?

We would not be inclined to go to a country where elections are held explicitly for show and with pre-arranged results. But it is also true that there are certain strong leaders, whose methods can raise our objections, but who are strong enough to hold reasonably fair elections. And we believe that if we go and observe these cases, we help strengthen the position of those who want to be really fair.

The strong leader will still win, but possibly the opposition will not be crushed. As long as Europeans are there, opposition forces will have a fair chance to at least influence or at least win those votes which otherwise people would not be prepared to give them.

Is it fair to say that election observation is a pro-opposition policy?

We do not go with the objective of helping the opposition, but with the objective of making – by our presence – elections cleaner than they would otherwise be. We are witnesses. Missions do not interfere, but just the fact of being present already has a certain influence, because it deters a certain amount of fraud and misbehaviour.

Your home country (Czech Republic) has traditionally been very much in favour of the concept of democratisation, far more than many others within the EU. Is this policy equally supported by all member states?

There are maybe differences in terms of tactics. I cannot imagine that there are countries among the 27 that say that democratisation is a bad thing. There might be those who argue that it would be better to feed people. But it is a matter of tactics rather than ultimate objectives.

However, when it comes to election observation there is a wide consensus. Nobody is against it. Actually, member states would like to see us to go everywhere.

How do you choose which countries to observe?

There are around 80 elections a year. Therefore, we have to pick and choose what elections we want to observe. We use some criteria to select where we go.

First, we have to be invited. Second, elections have to be meaningful. This means that when we know that there will be a 99% result in favour of a candidate, we do not go. At the same time, we avoid going to countries where there is a well-established democracy and the fairness of the elections is not under question.

Elections have to be of some importance for the country itself, for example at the end of a civil war. The safety of the country also plays a key role in deciding to send a mission. And of course if we have already been in a country and we notice that our recommendations have been completely ignored, we would be likely to refuse a new invitation. Then there are political considerations.

And in this, the European Parliament plays an increasing role…

The Parliament is already very active. Each mission is indeed led by an MEP. There are suggestions that the Parliament will be more involved in discussions of the priorities and concerning the selection of candidates for the chief of mission. In any case, our methodology is crucial in defining where to go.

You also have a rigorous methodology to observe elections…

Our electoral observation missions have been going on for more than 15 years. The last 10 with our own methodology, which is well respected around the world, remarkably objective and consequently something desirable by the observed countries themselves… and of course successful.

How big is the EU budget for election observation?

We of course have limitations in terms of financial resources. We spend on it 25% of the money allocated to the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), in total roughly 30 million euros a year. We have resources to do up to 12-13 observation missions per year. Moreover, apart from full-fledged electoral observation missions, we have also a variety of tools and other ways to support countries' electoral processes, including training, expert missions and advisory tasks.

Will this budget grow in the coming years?

We have already pushed to the limit our financial resources aimed at this instrument.

Can you list some of your top achievements?

It is fair to say that especially in countries emerging from civil wars, our missions helped seal the positive results of settling the conflict. We are particularly important in post-conflict situations.

This has been the case in Aceh, Indonesia, for example. In the past five years we have contributed to resolving a 30-year civil war, one of the best unheralded successes of the European Union. In 2009 we sent an expert mission to oversee the elections in Aceh as a sort of culmination of the post-civil war process. The good results were sealed.

Another important case was Honduras, just to mention some of the most recent. The country went through a very complex situation after the army ousted President Zelaya.

The following regime was considered illegitimate by the international community. But this regime organised new elections. And the fact we were there contributed to the legitimisation of the subsequent parliament and the current authorities in Honduras.

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