international analysis and commentary

Europe’s potential and limitations in its southern neighborhood


In the post-Arab awakening environment, with rising political uncertainty in transitioning countries and an economic and financial crisis throughout Europe, few people expected the EU to rise and shine. A new European Security Strategy (to supersede the 2008 version based on the original 2003 Strategy) has been talked about for quite a while now, and the potential of the EU’s new constructive conditionality approach (The 3 Ms) has been talked about at length. Yet, so far accusations of being excessively inward-looking have been rebuked with words but hardly with deeds.

This is not to say that the glass is half-empty: the EU remains the first trading partner of most North African and Middle Eastern countries and remains the first donor worldwide. Its commitment not to let the Palestinian Authority go completely bankrupt is a powerful reminder of the political implications of a humanitarian endeavor. Europe, and not the EU, has undertaken some military action in the region, in Libya, where, despite numerous uncertainties and obstacles, there is a process away from authoritarian power structures. And Europe is at the forefront of international mediation efforts aimed at bringing about stabilization in Syria. Their lack of success talks volumes about the international community’s archaic governance structure, more than of European failures per se.

With regard to more stable transitions, such as Egypt and Tunisia, the EU is not standing still. It has supported the Tunisian political process, has welcomed the electoral results which saw the main moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, win a decisive victory. After years of scarce official engagement with Tunisian civil society and NGOs, when the European Neighborhood Policy concentrated on economic reforms, liberalization and political stability at the expense of progress in human rights and pluralism, the EU is now closely observing the constitutional process and making sure personal and political freedoms get the respect the revolution invoked. Last September the EU also launched a task force with Tunisia, which sets out increased cooperation on several fronts, ranging from aid to civil society to support in various forms for the economic recovery, mobility partnership and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement. For once, it is no exaggeration to acknowledge that what is shaping up is a “privileged partnership”. No transition, especially in the initial years, proceeds in a continuous and smooth way. Tunisia still has its issues, social tensions mainly linked to the staggering youth unemployment rates, pockets of the country where security is not completely restored, episodes of political violence that require clarifications. Having said that, it remains the success story Brussels needs and will need in the years to come when showcasing its democracy assistance policy.

The new Egypt has also been embraced by Europe: its Islamist President, Mohamad Morsi, has visited Europe and has encouraged collaboration with European countries on a wide range of issues. The political process in Egypt has been from its outset, less consensual and based upon power-sharing than the Tunisian one and it has encountered several standoffs linked to some of its constituencies, be it the military, the judicial arm or some political forces. The country remains in a state of flux, because of un-resolved cleavages, mainly political, where liberals oppose decisions taken by the Muslim Brotherhood concerning the future shape of the political system and the Constitution. Within this context, Brussels is navigating unpredictable waters, trying to remain steady in its support to the process of political change, favoring increased EU economic assistance and engagement in exchange for broad guarantees concerning pluralism and human rights. Around mid-November the EU will officially launch the Task Force with Egypt, which will focus mainly on cooperation in the areas of tourism, business and civil society.

The context has changed also within Europe and often times it looks as if European efforts now increasingly converge on acting as a catalyst among donors and international financial institutions, trying to create economies of scale. This development should be celebrated and applauded as a rational and sustainable policy effort, and one which aims at creating the maximum possible consensus around a policy, by making the engagement more multilateral in nature.

Observers often tend to look at Europe singling out some member states’ foreign policies and interests in the region, overlooking the broader picture of what the EU does as such. While threat perceptions by various European states continue to show some slight differences with the unfolding of events in the region, the EU is formulating new toolboxes for its relations with its southern neighborhood. This might be far from ideal. Some complain about the limited resources the EU is making available, others the still marginal concessions in terms of European markets’ liberalization and freedom of movement for broad sectors of North African societies. And yet, these countries are being listened to by the EU, at several levels, and dialogue on what each side wants is ongoing. This is a form of support for democracy, albeit of the indirect and soft kind.