Because democracy matters: Options for the EU and MERCOSUR to restrain authoritarian tendencies

Because democracy matters: Options for the EU and MERCOSUR to restrain authoritarian tendencies


The re-emergence of authoritarian practices in some LAC and European countries has triggered reactions by regional organisations to safeguard democracy within their member states. This article compares the approaches of MERCOSUR and the EU to the Venezuelan and Polish cases. It illustrates the necessity for a more active role and new instruments for regional organisations in opposing illiberal developments.


The recent rise in populist politics and authoritarian tendencies in the European Union (EU) and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) represents a threat to democratic principles and regional security. The risk inherent to these developments is primarily due to the anti-pluralist stance of most populists: rejecting the legitimacy of political opponents, they claim to be the only truthful representation of the people and, not infrequently, transform democratic foundations into façade institutions.[i]

This raises the question for actors to revert this trend: Which role can regional organisations play in protecting democracy within their member states?

Following the limited success of prior engagement, the Common Market of South America (MERCOSUR) [ii], a regional trade bloc with four member states Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay; as well as the European Union (EU) with its 28 member states, should take a more active stance in restraining illiberal tendencies

One of the key insights found in this article is that assuming a new role in protecting democratic principles is ultimately in the interest of the regional organisations’ credibility and legitimacy. However, this requires structural improvements of institutional capacity and more effective democracy enforcement mechanisms.

Regional Organisations and Democracy

Increasing scholarly conviction on the authority for regional organisations to defend democracy within their own borders has furthered discussions on the respective mechanisms at their disposal.[iii] As prominent examples, MERCOSUR and the EU have illustrated their readiness to react to authoritarian tendencies inside member states, with Venezuela and Poland as recent and illustrative cases.

Figure 1: BTI Index – State of Political Transformation (2014-2018)

Source: Bertelsmann Transformation Index.[iv]

Venezuela: from Populist Rise to Authoritarian Turn

As Venezuela is currently facing an economic and humanitarian crisis, the reasons behind its authoritarian turn can be traced back to the late 1990s. Under the premise of “21st century socialism”, then-President Hugo Chávez promoted social welfare programmes, while similarly introducing several reforms that enabled him to exert pressure on democratic institutions.[v]

When Chávez’s successor Nicolas Maduro won the 2013 presidential elections, the country’s political and socio-economic situation turned increasingly unstable. Mass protests were brutally dispersed, Venezuela’s government erased its last democratic vestiges through the creation of a newly constituent body, thereby nullifying the opposition-held legislative assembly and denoting an authoritarian turn.[vi]

MERCOSUR’s Reaction 

Until 2015, MERCOSUR remained indifferent towards Venezuela’s increasing authoritarianism; many observers would argue that this was due to its member states’ preference for stable intergovernmental ties over the protection of democracy.[vii] Change took place in 2016 when Argentina and Brazil shifted towards more conservative governments that were not ready to tolerate this degree of authoritarianism inside MERCOSUR thereafter.[viii]

Following a period of fruitless dialogue with the Venezuelan government, they made use of their political weight withinthe organisation to trigger Article 5 of the Ushuaia Protocol on Democratic Commitment in August 2017.[ix]  As a result, Venezuela was expelled indefinitely from MERCOSUR until democracy is restored.[x]

Why did it take so long for this action to be taken? The reasons rest with MERCOSUR’s consensus-based decision-making process, which allows for presidential diplomacy and political preferences to prevail over supranational agreements and leaves the Ushuaia Protocol as an imperfect, highly political mechanism for defending democracy.[xi]It does not come as a surprise that as of now, save for its symbolic value, the sanctions against Venezuela do not seem to have had any major influence on the regime’s degree of authoritarianism.

As a result, although democracy is recognised as essential for MERCOSUR’s regional integration, the organisation proved itself unable to successfully engage in its defence, with their lack of prompt action challenging their credibility. A more determined commitment in safeguarding democracy is desirable and necessary but requires stronger institutions and enforcement mechanisms as a prerequisite.

Poland’s Constitutional Crisis     

Another country with populist tendencies is Poland. Once considered a success story of European integration, Poland has been recently experiencing a severe decline in its quality of democracy. In contrast to Venezuela, however, where the rejection of liberal-democratic principles is embedded in an ideologically framed left-wing populism, the rise of illiberal politics in Poland originates in the context of right-wing nationalism.

Since its electoral victory in October 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) used its majority to reconstruct Poland’s political order. A series of newly adopted measures and reforms granted the government increasing control over public media and the judiciary system, in particular regarding the Constitutional Court and the National Judiciary Council.[xii]

Figure 2: Nations in Transit Score – Poland (2014-2018)