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The Arab Spring, the Changing Mediterranean, and the Eu: Tools As a Substitute for Strategy?

Policy brief by European Policy Centre, 2011

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What is missing, argues Rosa Balfour in this Policy Brief, is a guiding vision to make EU foreign policy more than the sum of its parts.

Tunisian fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi did not
expect his tragic gesture in December 2010 to
open a Pandora's box of discontent, and trigger
such widespread change. It inaugurated an age of
hope for empowerment and freedom across the
Arab world, which is inspiring social mobilisation
elsewhere including in Europe. Myths about the
incompatibility of democracy and Islam, and fears
about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, have
been dispelled, challenging many of the deeply
engrained assumptions of EU and US policy towards
the region. Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes
around the world have started to tremble at the
unexpected outcomes of citizens' indignation and
alternative forms of mobilisation.

While the future shape of the Mediterranean, which
includes Europe, is still in the making, with many
risks attached to the extraordinary transformations,
after a bad start some features of EU action there
are becoming evident.

The EU has gradually displayed a wide-range of
different tools, from military might to humanitarian
aid, from targeted sanctions to measures in the
management of migration, and some rethinking
of the longer term programmatic policies. It has also
demonstrated some flexibility in using different policy
and institutional formats by strengthening existing
policies and using multilateral frameworks to back its
engagement, from NATO to the UN and the Middle
East Quartet. And it has cooperated with the African
Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of the
Islamic Conference in the Cairo Group, as well as
the international organisations on the ground.

If the response of the EU to the Tunisian and
Egyptian overthrow of their rulers revealed all
the weaknesses of short-term crisis management,
some of the pieces of the European contribution
to reshaping the Mediterranean are now coming
together. What remains scarcely visible is the
thread holding them together.

The Arab Spring, the changing Mediterranean,
and the EU: tools as a substitute for strategy?

The King Baudouin Foundation and Compagnia di San Paolo are strategic partners of the European Policy Centre


Rosa Balfour

June 2011


Putting the EU's foreign policy toolbox to use:
better late than never

The military engagement in Libya gave the opposition
to Gaddafi's regime the chance to not be decimated,
but the outcome is still to be seen. The impact on
the European side, however, shows that important
differences exist within the Union on the use of
force and its justification based on the principles
of the "Responsibility to Protect" – which conversely
was not invoked for Syria's state violence against
its citizens – on the assessment of the risks of state
failure in Libya, the role of NATO and of Common
Security and Defence Policy (see Erik Brattberg's

EPC Policy Brief Opportunities lost, opportunities
seized: the Libya crisis as Europe's perfect storm).

However controversial, in the Libyan case French
and British activism made decision-making relatively
fast. Approving the various targeted sanctions
packages towards the other countries was in many
ways lengthier. Freezing the assets of Zine El Abidine
Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak and their associates
took place several weeks after they had left their
presidencies and fled their respective countries
(presumably not empty handed); agreeing on
targeted sanctions against the Syrian regime was
even lengthier, with Washington and European

capitals seemingly debating whether Bashar al-Assad
is a reformer or a blood shedder. Apart from the
constraints of the institutional machinery in finding
unanimity at the level of the Foreign Affairs Council,
in each of these cases the EU followed the suit of
other actors and the UN Security Council rather
than take the lead and act swiftly.

Changes within the newly created European
External Action Service (EEAS) also came about
slowly, with the Arab Spring spreading across the
region while key officials had not yet been
appointed. In June the final important post was
filled by Christian Berger as Director for North
Africa, Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, Iran and
Iraq in the EEAS, and the European Council approved
a much needed Special Representative (SR), to be
nominated by the Member States (the name
proposed is Bernardino Leon) but supported by a
task force comprising officials from the EEAS, the
Commission, the Member States, the European
Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and
the European Investment Bank.

This positive decision should ensure engagement
through shuttle diplomacy, which the HR alone
cannot carry out, and will create a unit in Brussels
in charge of coordinating the various policy tools
available and, it is hoped, support the development
of more strategic thinking towards the region. The
scope and mandate of the SR remain to be decided.

The EEAS and the Commission have produced two
Communications (A partnership for democracy and
shared prosperity in March and A new response
to the changing neighbourhood in May), which
rethink aspects of the longer-term programmatic
policies and introduce a few innovations (discussed
below). The latter was discussed at length within the
EU institutions and is likely to represent the highest
level of engagement that is politically feasible at
the moment. A Communication on migration was
also published in May, a field which needs to be
included to understand the EU's response to the
Arab Spring.

In addition to the the €5.7 billion available for
2011-2013, the Member States have also approved
an additional financial package to of €1.242 billion
(put together from existing resources) to address
the new challenges up to 2013, and will welcome
further suggestions to improve the procedures
governing the neighbourhood policy's (ENP)
financial instrument and make it more flexible for
the next financial framework period (2014-2020).
This too is a welcome development, as it has taken
six months to put together commitments from the
international community (the World Bank, the G8
and now the Commission).

New approaches? Rethinking the European
Neighbourhood Policy

One important shift in the paradigms behind EU
engagement is the recognition that past policies
rested on the assumption that authoritarianism
was the bulwark against terrorism, Islamic
fundamentalism, and for the containment of
migration. The democracy-and-stability paradigm
which littered EU declarations and intentions
was far from being translated into practice. If this
starting point were to be carried out it could lead
to significant changes in diplomatic relations
with countries on the Southern shore.

One first consequence is a stronger commitment
in the new documents to supporting political
reform, pluralism, and processes that may lead to
democratisation, through the introduction of
more focused objectives and benchmarks jointly
negotiated with the partner governments.

In response to the need to engage with the civil
society actors that are emerging anew in the South
Mediterranean (and as part of the year-long review
of the ENP), the EU also proposes to pay much more
attention to non-governmental actors through a new
Civil Society Facility (a tool used in the Balkan
countries) and by creating a new Endowment for
Democracy. This would be a grant-making body for
non-registered NGOs and political parties, and could
have been achieved without creating a new budget
line but simply by changing the regulation of the
existing European Initiative for Democracy and
Human Rights (EIDHR).

Nonetheless, it is noticeable that directly supporting
political parties represents a departure from what has
hitherto been an official position of non-partisanship
in domestic politics of third countries and suggests
that the EU might become more involved in the
internal politics of third countries. In the unlikely
case that the Endowment were to become operative
very soon, it could, for instance, offer support to the
many parties that are mushrooming in Egypt and
Tunisia but are unprepared to compete with parties
such as Mubarak's old National Democratic Party
or the Muslim Brotherhood in upcoming elections.
It is likely that the Endowment received Member
States' backing also because of the opportunities
it could offer to support non-Islamist political
parties. Making the Endowment operative will
require a more thorough debate of the EU’s
democratisation objectives.

With these aims established, the two Communications
also sharpen the ways in which these may be achieved.
Differentiation, 'more for more', and ownership are
the buzz words of this renewed approach. The Arab

Spring has created far more heterogeneity in the
region, from Tunisia and Egypt, which have overthrown
the old regime and are in the process of creating new
constitutional and institutional structures which could
lead to a process of democratisation, to some of the
monarchies which are engineering reform from
above, so far receiving the EU's praise, as in the case
of Morocco. A few regimes have so far managed to
maintain the status quo and weather the protest

movements, while other countries have descended
into war and violence with uncertain prospects. The
difference between each situation requires a deeper
knowledge of developments in each country as well
as stronger and more targeted bilateral policies. These
would support reform efforts and reward those making
most progress with the renewed incentives of the "3 Ms"
(another buzz word used by Catherine Ashton): money,
market access, and mobility partnerships.


The trouble with incentives

Incentives need to be credible, tangible, and to
make a difference. The "3 Ms" are notoriously
hard to deliver due to traditional Member State
protectionism. Of the resources mobilised so far,
little comes from the Member States and the March
Communication is littered with appeals to them to
replenish funds and budget lines. In parallel, a
creeping narrative of aid effectiveness is detectable
in the speeches and documents of the EU institutions
and leaders (to do "more with less resources"),
focusing on better identification of the objectives
of external assistance, monitoring, and synergy with
political aims. This exercise is healthy, as too much
aid has been spent propping up debatable regimes,
but it needs to be acknowledged that in the age of
austerity the "Marshall Plans" called for by European
leaders are unlikely to materialise. By contrast,
countries from the Gulf and Asia are investing far
more heavily in North Africa and the Middle East
than Europe's meagre resources.

Market access could be an area in which Member
States might shed old protectionism of agricultural
products, especially in view of the Deep and
Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) now on
offer to all the countries in the EU's neighbourhood.
Trade with the EU is crucial for all its surrounding
countries (over 40% of North African and Middle
Eastern trade is with Europe), but the lengthy and
cumbersome process of negotiating and reaching a
DCFTA can diminish its attraction as an incentive in
the short term. However, the past 15 years have seen
slow but steady progress in lifting trade barriers between
the EU and some South Mediterranean countries
without significant consequences on the most
important challenges in North Africa of economic
growth and unemployment. Also with certain
standards raising in Europe, for instance on food
security, South Mediterranean products might be
yet again left out of the European market.

Mobility Partnerships could be the most attractive
incentive, especially for citizens, but will be the

most difficult to deliver. Indeed, strings were
attached to Mobility Partnerships three days after
they were proposed, making them conditional on
cooperation in combating irregular migration.
Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are the three countries
of the South Mediterranean that will be offered the
package first.

Morocco's regime has been meeting European
requests to contain migration patterns, but it will
be much harder for Tunisia and Egypt to satisfy these
conditions as their security forces will require radical
overhaul to ensure that the democratic reform of
the state is irreversible. Cooperation to support
third countries to help them meet requirements in
border control, migration management, security
and readmission will also take up an increasing
chunk of EU funds without raising the overall
budgetary envelope.

The search for new paradigms for EU-South
Mediterranean relations

Beyond the added value of the new proposals,
there remain some deeper issues that would
need to be addressed if the EU wants to seize the
opportunities of the Arab Spring and contribute
to shaping a new environment. The revolutionaries
have introduced new paradigms; so should the EU.

The substance of the revised ENP rests on a more
detailed definition of political conditionality and
democratic expectations. The application of such
conditionality, however, is notoriously full of
dilemmas. Conditionality can have a degree of
impact if the incentives are credible and deliverable
and if the receiving country is sensitive and committed
to the principles upon which conditionality is based.
This means that the EU could find inroads with the
countries embarking on forms of reform but will
hardly shift regimes that have weaker ties to
Europe – as has been the case so far with Algeria,
Syria, and Libya. It also requires a degree of equality
in treatment between various countries, finding a
balance between pragmatism and consistency.

European Policy Centre Résidence Palace, 155 rue de la Loi, 1040 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: +32 (0)2 231 03 40 Fax: +32 (0)2 231 07 04 Email: info@epc.eu Website: www.epc.eu

With the support of the Europe for Citizens
Programme of the European Union.

In turn, this means that the Member States will
have to shed some of their privileged relations with
individual countries if the EU is to stick by its
principles. Hitherto, the EU's Mediterranean policies
have been hijacked by diverse interests of Member
States, each cultivating their post-colonial relations,
which helps explain why over the past decade
Tunisia, for instance, made progress in economic
relations with the EU without incurring much
criticism for is worsening human rights standards.

The "more for more" and "less for less" mantra
needs further specifications: what are the starting
points for both the offering of positive incentives
and negative measures? Are Tunisia and Egypt
going to receive "more" for the transformations
achieved so far or, as many signals indicate, is
political conditionality, never applied so far,
kicking in now that they are most vulnerable?
How to entice a country like Algeria into agreeing
to the ENP packages if it can continue its level of
engagement with the EU as before? There will be
a need to find a careful balance between general
principles and credibility of EU commitments with
the pragmatism advocated by differentiation and
the emphasis on bilateral relations.

The recognition that the democracy and stability
paradigm was not translated into practice is a
welcome first step, but the reasons for this also
ought to be understood. The Member States need
to address the underlying reasons for the EU's poor
performance: the fears of Islamic fundamentalism,
uncontrolled migration, and terrorism remain the
chief concerns in European capitals. Recognising
that hitherto Europeans have passively accepted
the arguments provided by the regimes would
be a first step to finding new ways to understand
these phenomena, the degree to which they are
grounded in reality, and novel assessments of the
risks that exist in the region.

Who might lead this exercise in understanding
the problems that have so far made all EU
Mediterranean initiatives lame is not clear. The
countries that have traditionally pushed for EU
involvement in the region are also those that
have most acutely felt the dilemmas between
democracy and stability, and it remains to be
seen whether the High Representative flanked

by the EEAS and the new task force might be
able to steer a process leading to an overall
strategic rethink of the Mediterranean.

A difficult task will be redesigning a new
overarching architecture for relations across the
Mediterranean. The definition of the region itself
is problematic, increasingly so with the greater
diversity between countries and the recognition
of the role of other regional and international
actors there. The existing framework of the Union
for the Mediterranean has proved it is has been
without consequence, with its intergovernmental
structure that excludes civil society and sub-state
institutions, and its focus on projects as an attempt
to depoliticise some contentious issues. Yet, in
the absence of new initiatives on strengthening
multilateral relations in the region, the June
European Council confirmed the validity of
this framework.

Whatever the outcomes, the starting point needs
to be a more thorough analysis of the stumbling
blocks that have made EU policy towards the
region one of the most divisive and contentious
foreign policy issues, as well as a fresh understanding
of the political dynamics in the South Mediterranean.
The potential 'democracies in the making' need
to rethink their notions of sovereignty, and reconcile
national identity with interdependence with Europe.
Tunisia's ratification of the Rome statute of the
International Criminal Court is a crucial step,
showing a commitment towards not going back,
and making any reversal of the transition process
subject to international law and scrutiny.

If the EU wants to go beyond refining and rebranding
existing policies, however well that exercise is
carried out, and make use of the broad range of
tools it has at its disposal, it needs its policies to
be driven by a broader and shared vision which
addresses the political misgivings that have blocked
strategic thinking. EU foreign policy should be
more than the sum of its parts. One starting point
would be to see the Mediterranean basin as space
in which Europe belongs – rather than one
from which it needs to protect itself.

Rosa Balfour is a Senior Policy Analyst
at the European Policy Centre.