On the verge of the New Year, it seems appropriate to start this article by going back to the very beginning of 2011. On January 4th, Mohammed Bouazizi died after burning himself in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by the police. This outraged response was the catalyst of the Tunisian revolution and the Arab spring. Since then, four regimes (if one includes Yemen) have fallen, and civil uprisings and protests followed throughout the north of Africa and the Middle East.
This democratic revolution has caught Europe off guard; the reactions have been uneven (such as the initial French offer of support to Ben Ali) and different among member countries (e.g. the disagreement about the position to take with regards to the NATO intervention in Libya). Beyond the political statements of the member states individually, and of the EU as a whole, it is also interesting to call into question the role of already existing European policies towards the region (mainly the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, European Neighborhood Policy and Union for the Mediterranean). These policies have an institutional framework that makes them more stable, while at the same time more rigid than political reactions and declarations. Could they offer a way to advance a common relationship between EU countries and the Mediterranean region as a whole?
In this article, a brief overview is given of the evolution of European policies towards the Mediterranean region. This is done from the perspective of support for democracy, and to see how the EU institutions reacted to the Arab spring. This allows an analysis of which role these political and institutional frameworks could play to help European countries build a strong relationship with the new democracies.
Weak support of the path to democracy
In 1995, the Barcelona Declaration was signed, founding the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The EMP was created as a new framework of relations between the EU and its neighbours on the Mediterranean, with a multilateral perspective. The EMP included a chapter of political dialogue that aimed to foster democracy, human rights and the rule of law. However, it failed to encourage political change: ten years after the EMP started, real elections were just a pipe dream in most of the partner countries.
2004 was the next significant turning point regarding Mediterranean relations. After the events of 11th September 2001, the scope of the EU strategy to its southern border evolved, giving priority to the stability and security issues, thus removing the political reform from the agenda. So, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was born, drifting from a multilateral perspective to a bilateral one.
Finally, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) was announced in 2008 by Mr. Sarkozy in a bid to give a new impulse to the EMP. Although UfM is a continuation of the EMP, its stated purpose is to bring a new focus: the UfM is a common initiative of the countries on both sides of the Mediterranean with shared management (through for example a co-presidency, one from an EU country, and the other from the Mediterranean partner states). This novelty was a response to the lack of implication of the southern countries, but at the same time is a barrier to the process of political reform. It is not likely that regimes that are being questioned will support civil society in its initiatives to gain influence and promote change. A clear example is to be found in the Anna Lindh Foundation, a network for intercultural relations. After entering into the UfM umbrella, the Foundation’s Board of Governors asked the executive boards to cut a number of initiatives which were considered too “political”.
Who wants to play?
Political leaders seemed satisfied with this complex institutional building they had raised, until everything changed so dramatically earlier this year. From that moment on, a stream of reactions of all types and origins started. The role of the EU was irregular: sometimes the Commission and the High representative succeeded in presenting a united front on behalf of the European countries, while other times the EU was left aside as a result of a lack of consensus among member states. A few examples:
In March of this year a Joint Communication of the Commission and the High Representative Ms. Ashton was published, the “Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”. Later on came the review of the ENP (“A new response to a changing Neighbourhood”, May 2011). Both documents addressed the situation in Arab countries and the need to rethink the European policies in the region. Although they might be seen as only a rhetorical exercise, they also represent an effort to quickly respond to the events and critically point to policy changes that are required (e.g. emphasizing the reinsertion of the conditionality or “more for more” criterion), and introduce a package of measures in support of the region.
Additionally, both the appointment of Bernardino León as the EU Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean region, as well as the swift invitation to the free Libya to participate in the ENP and the UfM, are attempts of the EU to be consistent within the context and to present a coordinated response.
If we analyze the military reactions regarding Libya, the scene doesn’t look quite the same, unfortunately. The central military initiatives were taken by specific member states (mainly the UK and France), and within the NATO framework. This excluded the potential role of any EU defense structures or capabilities. The absence of political willingness to reach any consensus within the EU is a meaningful fact, and it is not an isolated example; the latest initiative by President Sarkozy –the Deauville Partnership- was launched within the G8 meeting, a forum in which France still pretends to maintain and influential international role.
The relationship between the EU and Arab countries has always been difficult and full of problems. This has many reasons, but two especially important ones are the lack of credibility of Europe as a political actor (immersed in permanent contradiction and in the struggle between 27 diverging agendas) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not subject of this article but an constantly underlying factor.
In the EU it is hard to achieve a consensus between member states or, most of all, to have a sole representative voice. Yet such centralization is exactly what is needed to be relevant and coherent. National interest is nowadays a leitmotiv in every Prime Minister’s office. No one wants to play a minor role. Ironically, however, a minor role for Europe is exactly where that path leads to.
The only way to advance the common relationship that the EU so desires in the Mediterranean is through the common policies. Only in this way can it play an active role and recover influence in the current regional environment In the long term, the construction of this new relationship between the EU and Arab countries requires an ability to adapt to the circumstances, and to transmit a deeper support of democratic movements. These cannot be simply headline-driven policies, but require a coherent and strong commitment. This in itself is nothing new, and that begs the question whether everyone really wants a common relationship.