top of page

The role of the European Community in the third wave of democratization

Past and present n. 3

This article is part of a column about how the history of the Old Continent is still relevant today.

Check out the 1st article here.

Check out the 2nd article here.

When we look at the European Union, we tend to associate it with values of freedom and equality and an engine of democratic stability. We should look back in history and ask ourselves whether democracies made the European Union or perhaps the influence of the European Community made democracies. As it often happens with this type of circular and tricky questions, the line is blurry, and the two options do not exclude each other. Once again, it is history that comes to us to help us find the answers to our questions and critically approach it.

If we wanted to look at the process of democratization through the whole European history, we would have to turn back to the XVIIIth century, when the values of the liberal State started emerging and then affirming themselves mostly during the XIXth century, with the first wave of democratization that brought into being a lot of democracies. We would then discuss the plague of totalitarianism and the second wave of democratization that followed their fall. In this article, we will however focus on the so called third wave of democratization, to use Huntington’s famous expression, that followed the fall of three important nondemocratic bulwarks that were still standing in Europe: Franco’s regime in Spain, Salazar’s regime in Portugal and the Regime of the Colonels in Greece. Although this was not the largest nor the last enlargement of the European Community, it is one that holds a particularly important significance, as it led to the inclusion and integration of countries whose historical baggage has always been considered to be deeply intertwined with the rest of the continent. While discussing the events that led to democratization in these three countries, we will look at how the European Community and the strive to join it influenced the pursuit of democratic values, in the hope of drawing some conclusions on the overall success of this integration and what it meant for both these countries and the European Union.

Democratic transition in Greece: from the fall of the colonel’s regime to EEC membership

Monument commemorating protests against the Regime of the Colonels in 1973. Source: Wikipedia

It is an historical fact that Greece belongs in Europe. Long before the European Union was even a project, it has always been regarded as the cradle of European culture, surrounded by a mythical halo that was enhanced during the Romanticism and the Greek war for independence of the1820s and that has lasted ever since. But from a more concrete perspective, the journey that led Greece to become a member of the European Community did not start until the second half of the XXth century, more precisely in June 1959, when agreements were signed between Greece and the EEC, constituting the first step of Greek integration in the Union.

But the process brutally froze in 1967, when the “Χούντα”, a military junta, took power through a coup, instituting a military regime, the “τὸ καθεστώς τῶν Συνταγματαρχών”, the Regime of the Colonels, that lasted until 1974, spearheaded by the colonel Geōrgios Papadopoulos until 1973 and then by the general Dīmītrios Iōannidīs. The repressive nature of the regime deprived the Greek population of freedom and democracy, until it eventually started breaking down. The crisis in Cyprus acted as a catalyst that showed the regime’s weaknesses and rapidly decreased its popularity, creating a fertile environment for the politician Kōnstantinos Karamanlīs to come back to Greece after a self-imposed exile to Paris. As a deus ex machina, he would have carried out deep changes in the political climate of Greece, by building back from scratch the whole structure of the Greek political system, leading to a top-down democratic transition that transformed the system from the top in all its aspects.

As Greece started its first steps as a newborn democracy, it was also possible for it to resume the process of integration in the EEC. The application for full accession was submitted in 1975, and it was followed by negotiations that led to the country entering the community in 1979.

Democratic transition in Portugal: the Carnation’s revolution

Soldiers with carnation, symbol of the Carnation revolution of 1974. Source: WIkipedia

In Portugal, democratic institutions had been stripped of all their value and turned into void vessels ever since in 1928, a military government had appointed Dr. Antonio Salazar as Minister of the Finances. Salazar had observed what he considered to be the perils of democracy and the instability of the First Republic of Portugal, instituted in 1910, that had alternated 45 cabinets in 18 years and been subject to 4 coups. He eroded the institutions from the inside and after becoming Prime Minister for his merits in eliminating Portugal’s budget deficit he managed to rule mostly by decree, controlled only by a small élite devout only to Christianity, money, and power. Even though the National Assembly and the President, in charge of nominating the Prime Minister, were formally elected by a popular vote, this was only a façade behind which was hidden a secret police in charge of any form of repression necessary to keep Salazar in power.

But as the Second World War came to an end and the Portuguese colonial empire started breaking down, the government became more and more weak as it had to devote almost the entirety of its budget to the military fighting against insurgencies in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea. In 1968, a stroke threw Salazar into a coma that would have caused his death a year later. Marcello Caetano was appointed as his successor by the President Americo Tomas. Dull and colorless figure, Cateano cautiously attempted some reforms but was constantly blocked by Tomas. Factionalism in the government was mirrored also by factionalism in the army, tired of fighting an anachronistic colonial war.

In April 1974, the military, united in an Armed Forces Movement, overthrew the government of Tomas and Caetano, during the “Revolução dos cravos”, the Carnation revolution. This plunged Portugal into a period of political turmoil and instability, with different factions constantly challenging and hampering each other, until a year later, in 1975, a Constituent Assembly was elected. This led to the drafting of a new constitution that was adopted in 1976, which established a progressive semi-presidential democracy. Not without difficulties and upheavals, Portugal was slowly able to gain back its stability.

Portugal started the process to gain membership in the EEC in 1978, viewing it as a chance to strengthen its position on the political chessboard of the time and to confer stability to its turbulent, newborn democracy. It finally became part of the Community in 1986, along with Spain, forming the so-called Europe of the twelve.

Democratic transition in Spain: attempted coups and resolute monarchs

Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina attempts a coup in 1981. Source:

In Spain, after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the question of who would have been his successor started to arise. King Juan Carlos should have been the continuator of Francoism, as he had already been given that title in the early 70s, but in the meantime, public opinion was in a quiver, as the people wondered whether the King would have restored the monarchy or started a path towards democratization. The case of Spain is peculiar and specular to the one of Portugal, as Juan Carlos was able to promote an united front that would have led to the forma politica of the parliamentary monarchy.

Even though transition to democracy was not nearly as chaotic in Spain as it was in Portugal, it was not exempt from attempts at restoring Francoism. In 1981, as the Spanish parliament was about to vote a vote of confidence for a centrist government that should have supervised the elections, ex-francoists decided to attempt a coup to prevent the PSOE, the socialist party led by Felipe Gonzalez, that at the time was the most popular in the polls, from being elected and creating a new socialist government. Antonio Tejero Molina, a colonel, tried to overthrow the Parliament by storming it and firing shots in the air, but Juan Carlos intervened and appealed to military discipline, forcing the colonel and his supporters to go back to their barracks. In this way, the coup was stopped, elections were held a year later, and Gonzales became the socialist prime minister of Spain.

In 1986, Spain became along with Portugal a new member of the EEC, always in the name of pursuing democratic stability and integration. Joining the union of other European countries was seen as a solution to many of Spain’s problems and as a chance to gain back a role on the global level.

European integration as the path towards democratic stability

So far, it seems clear that becoming members of the EEC was a fundamental piece in the research for democratic stability for Spain, Portugal and Greece. For these countries, joining the EEC was mainly a political decision. These countries had all undergone profound transformations, becoming members of the European Community was the motor they needed to consolidate such transformations and bring about deeper understanding and interiorization of democratic values. The importance of democracy to guarantee membership had the symbolic meaning of sealing a cut with the past and inaugurating the democratic future of these countries. Joining the EEC was a strategic move from Karamanlīs, as he had to deal with a weak country whose democracy was being built on the terrain of the fall of an unstable regime and a military failure. Becoming part of a greater group of countries sharing values of freedom and democracy was the remedy Greece needed to turn into a stronger democracy and start walking on the path of modernization of both its economy and its society. A similar reasoning was made also by the leaders of Portugal and Spain, eager to leave the past behind.

Oppressed by unstable nondemocracies, Portugal, Spain and Greece had been annihilated on the international relations scene and were ceasing to be active elements in the global framework. Joining the European Community gave them a chance to intertwine their destinies with those of other European powers, restituting them their relevance on the political scene. Their successful integration in the Union has shown the importance of the Community as a compact bloc acting on an international level and as a composite power able of paving its way in a decentralized world.

Thus, we can conclude that closeness to the European Community was what instilled in these countries the curiosity and strive towards democratization, but it was especially after they joined the Community that they found the support and political motivation to pursue stabilization of their democracies. Integration of these countries has been a true realization of the European mission of promoting democratic values and stability, and could be regarded as a milestone of the birth of a European identity that, seemingly weak and confused, has been pervasive and capable of incentivizing profound changes.

Recent Posts
bottom of page