The EU in the Arab spring

The EU has a choice to make: does it want to assert itself as a normative power, or does it want to stay an inconclusive and erratic political dwarf?
Hélène Pfeil
20 July 2011

In the wake of the Arab spring, European countries are forced to rethink their foreign policy attitudes towards their neighbors in the Mediterranean. National politicians challenge the European Union to modify its approach towards “a changing neighbourhood”, as phrased by the latest European Commission report. However, very little is actually presented and explained to the wider European public about the initiatives and actions undertaken by European institutional actors and the drastic need for a change of paradigm in the EU’s foreign policy. What has the EU’s attitude been towards its southern neighbours prior to the Arab spring? Why does it have to change? And what are three main pillars around which a new European position could articulate itself?

Neighbourly relations before the Arab spring…

Prior to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the EU’s attitude towards its southern neighbours was mainly framed by the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Since the launch of the Barcelona process in 1995, all bilateral association agreements between the EU and its Mediterranean partners have included a human rights clause which stipulated that the relations between the parties should be based on the respect of democratic principles and human rights. However, the deepening of economic and political relationships was never really made conditional upon progress in human rights with Arab states. Generally speaking, since the links between the European Commission delegations and civil society depended on the local political frameworks in Middle Eastern and North African states, hostile governments easily hampered calls of proposals for democratization projects. This contributed to the weakness of the official relationships between EU delegations and civil society in Tunis and Cairo. It also contributed to the idea that neither politics nor democratization can lead anywhere. The generally accepted mindset behind the Union for the Mediterranean (launched in 2008) thus favoured alternative forms of cooperation, in environment-related projects or economic undertakings for example, which were deemed less controversial. In addition, the sad example given by the former French Foreign Minister Mrs. Alliot-Marie, who publicly offered French expertise to help out Ben Ali’s government with the so-called “security problems” encountered by his police forces, is symptomatic of the attitude of several Mediterranean EU states: support for dictators – out of security concerns or economic interests – was placed way ahead of democratic considerations.

…and why they have to change

Now the Arab revolutions have called this entire attitude into question. They clearly mean that “yes, politics is important”, and that no, the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt could not possibly continue to live under these autocratic regimes for years without end. Two impressions prevailed on the other side of the Mediterranean: first, that there was no unity behind an EU neighbourhood policy that supported political reform and, second, that the prevailing European approach tends to be the lowest common denominator. These impressions were not convincingly offset by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Mrs. Ashton. Slow to set into action, the EU’s reaction was everything but visible and cohesive. With such a sluggish attitude regarding values that are at the core of the European project, it is clear that the EU’s credibility abroad is crumbling and does not even live up to its image of ‘soft power’ or ‘normative power’. No wonder our Arab neighbours share a certain sense of bitterness. However, the Egyptian and Tunisian people also seem to have kept a pragmatic faith in the EU, realizing that despite its shortcomings, it is still a strong partner at their doorstep, with many things to offer. And indeed, there are at least three areas in which the EU has the opportunity to show its commitment towards consolidating its own identity as a political actor.

Three challenges for the European Union

1. Support the democratic transitions… and communicate about it.

Regarding the electoral processes that will take place in Tunisia and Egypt, the presence of EU experts on the ground (such as those who collaborate with the Ben Achour Commission in Tunisia for example) and the EU’s readiness to send election observation missions constitute tangible support to the democratic transitions. Increased resources under the Instrument of Stability and the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, increased country allocations in the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy for the period 2011-2013 and increased loans from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will prove useful in answering social and economic needs in Tunisia and Egypt. Concerning the inclusion of civil society, the EU Commission will soon launch additional calls for proposals to complement the set of running projects linked to democratization.

Beyond making additional funding available, the EU’s know-how regarding democratic institution building can also be turned into an appreciable tool. Among the areas in which the EU seems best placed to share its expertise are rule of law missions including mandates to reform the security sector, strengthen the judiciary and support anti-corruption programmes. Hence, the EU’s impact on a social and economic level should not be underestimated and the EU’s reform of its relationship to civil society seems to be well under way.

But who hears about it? Apart from specialists, very few people are aware of the EU’s involvement in these crucial transition phases, and this lack of communication harms the EU’s credibility in those nascent democracies as well as on the European continent itself.  

2. Adopt a more rigorous conditionality principle in the Neighbourhood Policy 

The renewed version of the European Neighborhood Policy has adopted a “more funds for more reform” approach – which makes additional funds conditional on progress in democracy-building and respect for the rule of law. Concretely, this conditionality should translate into more clearly-worded and legally binding human rights clauses in agreements with third countries, for example concerning free trade. Another idea suggested in the European Commission’s report “A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood” is to set up a European Endowment for Democracy that would complement the work of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights in helping political parties, non-registered NGOs and trade unions and other social partners under the scrutiny of the European Parliament.

According to the Deputy Spokesperson to Mrs. Ashton, this evolution constitutes “important progress”. However, it is still unclear if it really marks a paradigm shift away from security and stability towards putting human rights and democracy first. The relationship between the EU and its Southern neighbours will only be upgraded if the conditionality is more rigorously implemented than in the past. The reassertion of this principle is in itself a good thing, but national divergences within the EU or disagreement on the severity of sanctions to apply may, again, limit it to a discursive shift.

3. Rethink human mobility 

The EU fortress is definitely hard to take down. The idea of a greater mobility of students, researchers and entrepreneurs was already present in 1995 with the launch of the Barcelona process. The ‘Tempus’ programme, for example, funds partnerships between higher education institutions in the EU and MENA countries. But these projects have remained marginal and conditioned to the EU’s security policies. This ambivalence between claims favouring more mobility and the wish to control immigration flows is still paramount today. The hostile reaction of national governments towards Libyan and Tunisian refugee flows suggests that there is no notable evolution at this level and that the question of immigration will stay a very difficult one in the years to come. Obviously, a key determinant will be the attitude of the new Tunisian and Egyptian governments: will they imitate their predecessors and use the management of immigration flows towards the EU as a negotiation tool, to obtain, for instance, commercial advantages? Or will they request a true two-way freedom of movement across the Mediterranean? 

Maybe it’s time for the EU to get prepared for the latter case. In the long run, it does not make sense to keep the bridge across the Mediterranean a one-way road. 500 million Europeans and 500 million Arabs have a common future to build, and the EU has a great potential in contributing to it. 

But on the ground, what comes out is a pretty feeble role in politics, the lack of a consistent position, and a symptomatic communication deficit towards its own citizens and citizens of its neighbouring countries. The EU has a choice to make: does it want to assert itself as a normative power, or does it want to stay an inconclusive and erratic political dwarf? The perception MENA and European people have of the EU will depend on the way it acts in the coming months and how credibly it translates its values and projects into reality.

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