An old Moroccan legend has it that the people of Andalusia, in Southern Spain, once complained to king Alexander of Macedonia about the continuing pillaging at the hands of the north African Berbers. The king ordered his best engineers to dig a huge channel between Spain and Africa. The Strait of Gibraltar thus came to be and the Andalusians lived in security happily ever after.
In the face of the momentous popular upheaval shaking north Africa, Europe is still living the fairy tale. At a meeting on 31 January, EU foreign ministers reached out to the new authorities in post-Ben Ali Tunisia and expressed their support for an "orderly transition" in Egypt. But the message during recent years has been something strikingly different: Europe has neither encouraged democratic transformation nor prioritised reforms in the region. Much like the Andalusians, the paramount objective has been to keep north Africa at arm's length from Europe.
Two sets of reasons - one socio-economic, the other socio-political - have underpinned such an attitude. The socio-economic pressures include unemployment, which stands at double-digit rates in most countries in north Africa. Moreover, the demographic time-bomb has not been defused: the population of north Africa and the middle east is expected to grow from the present 280 million to nearly equal that of Europe with some 400-450 million inhabitants by 2020.
This latter figure forms the background to the socio-political challenge. The primary concern here is Europe's angst about immigration. The dehydrated boat people stranded on the beaches of southern Europe account for a minimal fraction of the migrants entering the EU every year. Yet, the Mediterranean has become the main testing ground for Europe's stance on immigration, because scenes there strike at the feeling of discord within multicultural Europe. Then there is that which the oft-quoted Arab Human Development Report has called the "freedom deficit" of the region - corrupt regimes coupled with severe restrictions of political rights and civil liberties - which is now challenged by events from Cairo to Sanaa in Yemen.
Faced with these challenges, Brussels has ended up accepting the standard alibi made by Arab autocrats, whereby opening the political system would pave the way for takeovers by Islamic extremists. The EU has thus favoured economic cooperation in the hope that more widespread prosperity would eventually spill over to political reforms. To be fair, Europe is not the only culprit here. EU countries are north Africa's largest trading partner, so economic cooperation makes good sense. Financial assistance and macro-economic programs in the Mediterranean have been co-financed by the International Monetary Fund and follow standards set by the World Bank. Still, the charge that economic support should accompany-and not precede-political reforms on the receiving end pertains to the EU, no less than to international financial institutions.
The main trouble with the EU has been in the gap between political rhetoric and operational reality. For all the European declarations, north Africa observers never had many illusions about the prospect of trade liberalization with the EU. Far more concrete has been European protectionism on, most notably, agricultural products and textiles. Add to that the bilateral oil and gas deals that continue to flow between some European countries and the likes of Libya or Algeria, and Europe's arbitrariness towards the region becomes dramatically apparent.
With events still unfolding on the Arab street, what should Europe do now? As we have argued in a recent policy brief, the EU's policy toolbox is comprehensive and detailed enough to ensure strong support for the reform process. While a more effective EU policy is deeply desirable, the guiding principles of governance reform are all enshrined in the existing policy framework and contain the right incentive structure. These standards are applicable to any new reform-minded government sitting in Tunis or Cairo.
At the same time, the EU will have to be smarter and stricter in how its policy instruments are implemented. Any talk of penalties or sanctions is associated with the complex historical legacies of European oppression and colonisation. However, these punitive conditions are crucial to send a signal to governments moving away from their commitments.
Above all, the dramatic events in north Africa should elicit a profound reflection inside Europe about how the EU portrays itself on the world stage, and how it is perceived by its counterparts. This is not about repeating the inward-looking exercise that characterised the EU institutional debate of the past half-decade. The reflection should be primarily about the priorities and values that the EU aims to promote, and about how these should be promoted. The ongoing review process of the EU's ailing Neighbourhood Policy is the best place to start.
At the height of America's occupation of Iraq, European diplomats were quite keen to privately remark that their more modest framework was still wiser than "regime change." It has introduced a regional praxis of dialogue and consultation where previously there was none. The north African states have not followed Iran on a theocratic path. All this is true, except that the original plan was not damage-limitation. Europe aimed at inspiring comprehensive political and economic reforms; its stated ambition was region-building, widespread stability and prosperity.
None of this has happened and the revolutions in north Africa have called Europe's bluff.