Europe is increasingly holding back when faced with clear violators of democratic norms, from the far-flung DRC to neighbouring countries like Turkey. The ramifications end up jeopardising Europe’s own security.
Earlier this year, the EU paid lip service to the importance of maintaining a strong influence abroad in the interests of its own security and stability. High Representative Federica Mogherini stated that “for everyone in the world, we will continue to be there” as a “reliable partner…investing in development”. Yet the evidence in two cases where the EU’s influence is arguably badly needed, Congo and Turkey, strongly suggests otherwise.
Inaction in DRC
As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) again lurches towards civil war, Europe’s response has been muted, even in the face of blatant transgressions. President Joseph Kabila’s unconstitutional postponement of the 2016 general elections until 2018 has led to violent protests. In power since 2001, Kabila is deeply unpopular. The rule of law is deteriorating: the United Nation’s Human Rights Office documented violations against 225 members of civil society organizations and 31 journalists this year alone. The Congolese army stands accused of mass slaughter in the region of Kasai, and recent clashes with protesters left 27 dead.
Brussels imposed sanctions on the Congolese authorities, but has yet to bring more concrete pressure to bear. The EU has the capacity to go after profits from the Congolese mining industry which have enriched Kabila and his clan, as large transactions in the DRC are made in either US dollars or Euros. But instead of going after these targets aggressively, European responses have mostly been verbal and hardly in keeping with the pace of events.
At a time when Congo’s civil society is in upheaval, the EU is well-placed to give active support to the opposition and facilitate a democratic transition of power. Opposition leader Moise Katumbi, Kabila’s most likely successor to the presidency, is shuttling between Brussels, Paris and Geneva to generate international pressure on the strongman. In exile after facing politically motivated charges, Katumbi remains a popular figure in the DRC and opposition parties have endorsed him as their official candidate to succeed Kabila. Yet Europe seems not to be seizing an obvious opportunity to support him.
Tunnel vision in Turkey
This same tunnel vision is evident in Europe’s relationship with Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has overseen a creeping transition from flawed democracy to autocracy, even before the 2016 coup against him. Like Kabila, Erdogan is responsible for the arbitrary arrests of journalists and dissidents, violence against protesters, power grabs like last April’s referendum, and human rights violations committed under the fog of war in Turkey’s Kurdish provinces. All this, while Erdogan’s Turkey has technically been a candidate for European Union membership.
The coup attempt last year was followed by a purge of academics and members of the army and police. Erdogan had the two co-leaders of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, arrested. The HDP is the most vocal and influential advocate of minority rights within the country; their voice has been largely silenced.
Europe took its time to react to these developments, at least partly because the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey forced Brussels to avoid antagonising Erdogan for fear that he could upend the agreement. It was only on 6 July that the EU finally decided to suspend accession talks. The European Parliament’s lead negotiator on Turkey has characterised the bloc’s strategy as “wait silently for things to improve in Turkey.” This passive approach seems only to have emboldened Erdogan: his campaign against opponents has extended to the EU itself. Astoundingly, in August Interpol briefly arrested Turkish-German author Dogan Akhanli in Spain at Turkey’s request.
Divide and surrender
Europe’s internal divisions and preoccupations are likely to be a significant impediment to effective action. Before the most recent sanctions on DRC were introduced, rumours among the humanitarian community hinted France may have stonewalled a more proactive European response. As the former coloniser of most of West Africa, Paris has close relationships with the leaders of the region and (allegedly) blocked the EU from acting in DRC to keep those partners safe from a destabilising chain reaction. This narrow perspective ignores the risks of Congo’s ongoing breakdown for Africa as a whole and, in turn, for Europe’s Mediterranean borders.
The divisions work both ways – European states may choose to take measures individually, where the EU fails. In the case of Turkey, for example, Germany has taken a stronger stance: Angela Merkel publicly threatened the Turkish government with blocking future cooperation, while foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel promised Erdogan’s Turkey will never accede to the Union. But a piecemeal approach will never be as powerful as the concerted efforts of a united Europe.
The justification for appeasement towards the Turkish state can be put down to the refugee crisis and the migration deal that was signed between the EU and Turkey and was put into effect in March of last year. It is however no overstatement to say that the Turkish state has made a mockery of the EU since the deal and Brussels has had little leverage in terms of reprimanding Turkey for its behaviour in both the domestic and international sphere. With regards to the DRC, the EU seems to simply be passively accepting events taking place in the country. The consequences of inaction will have repercussions on the political landscape and stability at home, as Europe has to reckon directly with the results of instability, corruption, and failed development in Africa and elsewhere.