Monitoring elections boosts EU’s world image, says top official

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 acting director-general for foreign affairs (RELEX) at the European Commission Karel Kovanda told EURACTIV in an interview.

Despite the institutional changes under way in EU foreign policy with the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, Kovanda is certain that election observation, together with other pro-democratisation activities, will play a key role in the EU's efforts to become a stronger global player.

Indeed, the new organisational chart of the Commission's external relations department (RELEX) reveals that one of six directors to be appointed will be in charge of supporting human rights and democracy around the world.

The EU's new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, "is going to be as enthusiastic a supporter of election observation as Ferrero-Waldner was," Kovanda stressed.

Former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, a European People's Party politician, has been a strong supporter of the EU's pro-democracy efforts, pushing relentlessly to strengthen the EU's election observation activities. Observers have wondered in recent months whether Ashton will provide the same long-term support in this regard.

Kovanda sought to reassure the sceptics, adding that today's EU budget for electoral support, with which election observation is the most visible activity, is around 30 million euros per year and is expected to remain stable in the coming years.

The EU's monitoring methodology "is well respected around the world, remarkably objective and consequently something desirable by the observed countries themselves," stressed RELEX Director-General Kovanda.

Indeed, each year the EU is requested to observe elections in many more countries than it actually does (it has monitored around ten per year in the last decade). "There are around 80 elections a year" worldwide, but due to limited financial resources, "we have to pick and choose what elections we want to observe," said Kovanda.

Without an official invitation from the authorities of the country holding elections, the EU cannot send observers, but many developing countries are interested in showing Brussels their commitment to democracy and the stability of their political system, with the ultimate objective of attracting precious EU funding and investment.

Responding to critics who accuse Europe of having legitimised several questionable regimes around the world by giving a poll its blessing in an election report, Kovanda said that without the European observers' presence, many strong leaders across the world might be even stronger and less democratic than they actually are.

"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," Kovanda remarked.

To read the interview in full, please click here

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the European Union embarked on the new foreign policy activity of observing elections to help stabilise young democracies around the world.

The first ever EU mission was sent in 1993 to monitor elections in the Russian Federation. Since then, dozens of EU observation missions have been deployed across the world, especially in Africa, and to a lesser extent Southern and Central America and Asia.

Today, the EU does not monitor elections in Europe or the states of Central Asia, which were once part of the Russian Empire. Polls in these areas are observed by the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia is a member.

In 2000, the EU developed a detailed methodology to observe elections with the objective of increasing the credibility and fairness of its comments on elections. Observers deployed in the field have to follow a number of procedures, stand clear from interfering with electoral processes in the countries observed, and base their judgements on specific facts.

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