Rethinking Euro-Med policies in the light of the Arab Spring

The uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East have swept away decade-old dictators, but not their regimes. It will take far more than protests to ensure that they are throughly replaced. Here's how the EU can contribute to this process.
Jean-Pierre Cassarino Nathalie Tocci
25 March 2011

Euro-Med policies in a post-1/11 world

In 2011 a tide of change has swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Before the eyes of the world, the so-called Arab street, often derided for its apathy and acquiescence, succeeded where no one else had (or perhaps tried) before. Through mass protests (and tacit military support), decade-old dictators of the likes of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak melted away like giants with feet of clay. As their house of cards came tumbling down, the region shook from Morocco and Algeria through to Bahrain and Yemen, making regimes tremble and empowered populations rise in jubilation and despair.

When the dust of the revolts settles, the challenges will be daunting. Regimes, or, more accurately, leaders, can fall in days or weeks, but building new orders will take much longer. Today, while some leaders have gone, their regimes have not, and it will take far more than street protests and an e-savvy youth to ensure they are thoroughly replaced. Meeting these challenges is first and foremost the duty of the southern Mediterranean countries. However, given the European Union’s acquiescence to the status quo ante and its geographical proximity to the region, it is also as much an interest as a responsibility of the EU too.

As aptly put by Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP):

"We must show humility about the past. Europe was not vocal enough in defending human rights and local democratic forces in the region. Too many of us fell prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region. This was not even Realpolitik. It was, at best, short-termism – and the kind of short-termism that makes the long-term ever more difficult to build."

We could not agree more. The revolts in the Arab world have demonstrated the weakness of EU policy towards the region, particularly of what such policy had evolved into in recent years, through its lopsided emphasis on economic cooperation and migration management at the expense of democracy and sustainable development. How can the EU revise its policies both to sustain bottom-up democratic change and development and to factor the implications of such change into its policies?

The Arab revolts do not call for Europe to reinvent the wheel. Both on paper and in terms of policy instruments, much of what is needed already exists. In terms of policy instruments, the ENP, launched in 2003-4, with its hub-and-spoke bilateralism and its roots dug deep into the EU enlargement logic, has what it takes to support the domestic transformation of the neighbouring south. More so than the 1995 Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), the ENP, in principle, put on the table more funds, more trade and more cooperation with the south. Again on paper, the ENP also put far more emphasis on democracy, human rights and sustainable development compared to previous initiatives such as the EMP. This is not to say that the EU should comfortably pat itself on the back. Whereas part of the original logic and instruments of the ENP were sound, much of this was never implemented in practice. The revolts in the Arab world call for a rethink of the EU’s hierarchy of policy priorities and of the manner in which such policies have been carried out.


Put the money where the mouth is

As for the quantity of EU assistance, per capita funds to the southern Mediterranean countries stands at an average of €13.9 per year. If we remove three outliers – the Occupied Palestinian Territory (to which EU assistance per year stands at an astounding €350 million), Lebanon (where EU assistance in 2007-2010 reflects the consequences of the 2006 Lebanon war) and Israel (which receives disproportionately low amounts of EU funds in view of its status as a developed economy) – average per capita assistance per year to the south falls to €4.1. Against the background of the EU’s current economic situation, it is difficult to imagine a radical up-scaling of EU assistance. This said, considering that 2007-13 EU assistance to African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) countries stands at €23 billion, an increase from the current €11.2 billion for the entire eastern and southern neighbourhoods in the next budgetary cycle (2014-2020) would be in order. Alongside this, the EU ought to increase European Investment Bank loans to the Mediterranean and revise the statutes of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in order to channel its assistance to the south as well as the east.  


Make good on the offer of “everything but institutions”

The ENP also held on offer “everything but institutions”. This was particularly appealing to the south, which has no ambitions to enter the EU. Yet much of this offer has remained on paper. As for trade, putting appealing carrots on the table calls for a renewed EU willingness to open its agriculture markets to the south. Only if the EU overcomes its inbuilt resistance to move in this direction with all southern Mediterranean countries, facilitating access to their fruit, vegetable, oil and wine, it stands a chance of inducing its southern partners to scale down their exceptionally high tariff barriers.

As for the movement of persons, if the EU is genuinely willing to offer more appealing incentives to the southern neighbours, readmission and reinforced border controls should no longer be the main priorities guiding cooperation on temporary labour migration schemes. Rather than conditioning the adoption of circular migration schemes to cooperation on readmission and border control, the EU ought to condition these schemes to putting in place effective legal and institutional mechanisms to foster the (temporary or permanent) reintegration of labour migrants in countries of origin. Temporary tax exemptions for entrepreneur-returnees, skills portability programmes, facilitated portability of migrants’ social rights, support for the education of returnees’ children, and vocational training programmes addressed to circular migrants, constitute some of the prerequisites of effective circular migration schemes. Such basic preconditions, once fulfilled, would allow migration and development to be re-coupled.


Effective conditionality

Reviewing the EU benefits on offer must come along with a review of the policy mechanisms designed to translate such offers into adequate incentives for reform in southern Mediterranean countries. In this respect, the time has come to reconsider the use of conditionality. The Commission has recognized the need to move towards an ‘incentive-based approach’. This would mean conditioning the broad upgrade of EU-Med relations through new ENP Action Plans and advanced status agreements to important steps forward in these countries’ transitions. However, it would also mean conditioning specific benefits outlined in new or existing Action Plans to equally specific reforms jointly agreed by the EU and the neighbours.

In particular, EU conditionality would do well to focus its attention on the manifold dimensions of the rule of law. Concentrating conditionality on the rule on law has three sets of benefits. First, as opposed to explicitly political elements of reform, focusing conditionality on the rule of law would shield the EU from accusations of ‘political imperialism’. Second, the EU, whose cooperation with southern Mediterranean countries spans across a variety of sectors and policy areas, is well placed to induce rule of law reform in a deep and comprehensive manner. Third, rule of law reform is critical to ensure veritable transition, i.e., transition that pertains not exclusively to the strictly-defined political and institutional realms, but also to the private sector and civil society. Indeed, in most of the southern Mediterranean, the problem is that authoritarianism spans well beyond the political sphere, and its tentacles dive deep into the private and social realms too.


Broaden the spectrum of partners inside and outside

A final dimension of a revised ENP regards the EU’s partners in the process of change. In a context of transition from authoritarian rule, engaging with the broadest possible spectrum of local societal actors is essential. The EU can certainly not afford to ignore any existing organized political voice, including mass Islamist parties. However, engaging only with existing political forces is insufficient. The social characteristic of the Arab revolts was precisely their spontaneous and unorganized nature. This highlights how mainstream public moods have not been channelled yet into organized political voices. In such a vacuum, new political forces are bound to emerge, and their roots may well originate in the civil, social and economic spheres, including workers, youth and student movements, trade unions and associations. Mapping the existing civil society sphere in the southern Mediterranean is thus critical. Equally important is then engaging with such actors through all means available – dialogue, funding and training.

Finally, and no less importantly, an effective ENP strategy to support transformation in the southern Mediterranean also means cooperating with other external actors deeply enmeshed in this process. Two key partners in this respect are the United States and Turkey. The US, as the dominant external actor in the Middle East, has a critical role to play. Particularly in the Gulf, in Jordan and, of course, in Egypt, the US through its military presence and/or assistance represents the single most important external game changer in the region. An effective ENP strategy towards supporting genuine transition must account especially for the intimate American-Egyptian dynamics at play. Another key actor for the EU to partner with is Turkey. Turkey is an EU candidate, with whom the EU seeks to develop a strategic foreign policy dialogue. It has also been heralded as a model for the transition of the Arab world. In view of the complementarities between Turkey’s and the EU’s neighbourhood policies, exploring what the Turkish model might mean for the southern Mediterranean may be an important exercise for the EU, Turkey and the southern Mediterranean to conduct together.

Reviewing the ENP by revamping the benefits on offer, reconsidering the effective use of conditionality, establishing adequate monitoring mechanisms and engaging with a plethora of partners both within and beyond the region is imperative. Such a review is contingent on the recognition of a reversed hierarchy of priorities, induced by the force of historical events unfolding in the region. To reverse policy priorities is no small feat. It is nonetheless a feat the EU cannot shy away from.

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