The demands by millions of people in the Arab world for more dignity, freedom and democracy, and less despotism and corruption call seriously into question the policies towards the region of the European Union and its member states.
Security concerns have long dominated European countries’ relations with their southern and eastern Mediterranean neighbours. The result has been that repeated violations of human rights by some governments have been ignored because of these regimes’ efforts against religious fundamentalism, terrorism and illegal immigration. Democratic movements in Arab countries have received only timid support from Europe because of the fear of political Islam.
Some observers have long asserted that demands for freedom, democracy and equality in the Arab world are weaker than elsewhere. The recent political earthquake has proved them wrong. As the Arab spring has unfolded, the EU and its member states reacted with remarkable urgency. But now they must build a new relationship with the region, based on the newly-voiced aspirations of its people.
After the tide of revolt had spread from Tunisia in January of this year, and to Egypt in February, European leaders met in Brussels in March and agreed on a strong political position in support of these popular demands. Their statement, prepared by the European Commission and its new foreign service, was entitled ‘Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean’.
Next, in late May, EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, together with Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, presented the revised European Neighbourhood Policy that EU foreign ministers adopted in late June. In other words, although the EU is sometimes characterised by slow decision-making, it responded speedily to the Arab spring. But was its response satisfactory? To answer that question, we need to understand what the European Neighbourhood Policy has achieved, and hasn’t. Ten of the 16 countries it covers are in the Arab world.
After the EU’s ‘big bang’ enlargement in 2004, its neighbourhood policy was developed on the basis that to be stable and prosperous an expanded Union needs neighbours that are stable, well governed and prosperous. In terms of security, the policy is not just an element of Europe’s ‘soft power’ but also a strategy to reduce the risks posed by regional conflicts, migration flows and terrorist and criminal acts.
The neighbourhood policy is therefore now firmly established as one of the main elements of EU foreign policy, with its structures and instruments well defined. Under it, the EU has gradually deepened its relationships with Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. Its contribution to the economic survival of the Palestinian territories has been crucial. Trade liberalisation and regulatory convergence have helped strengthen economic links and dialogue in areas like the environment, transport and energy is creating useful networks.
But the EU hasn’t achieved its aim of firmly anchoring its neighbours to Europe. The many reasons for this include the short lifespans of neighbourhood policy programmes around five years, and major geopolitical challenges like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the very reason is that the EU simply hasn’t offered enough.
For example, the visa policy currently in force for citizens of EU southern neighbours is at odds with the neighbourhood policy’s objectives of greater co-operation and rapprochement. Southern and eastern Mediterranean countries find this humiliating when the EU says it has granted them a privileged partnership. The EU has also been very reluctant to open its markets to trading partners that have a competitive advantage, such as agriculture. Arab countries also need more financial assistance with their development reforms, so now it is up to the EU to make a sustained effort to persuade its member states that the economic costs of a more ambitious neighbourhood policy will be more than offset by the political benefits.
The Arab spring offers Europe an opportunity to do just that, so what has the EU so far decided to offer? The revised neighbourhood policy includes political support and extra financial resources for all Arab countries that commit themselves firmly to democracy, respect of human rights and the rule of law. That commitment needs to include free elections, freedom of association, expression and assembly, media freedom and an independent judiciary. Other key elements are determined anti-corruption measures and the placing of armed forces and security organisations under democratic control.
The EU has also committed itself to supporting civil society organisations as a barrier against authoritarianism, and which also contribute to the existence of a healthy opposition to government. Human rights agreements with individual Arab countries are to be strengthened and a European fund for democracy is also envisaged to help the development of political parties, NGOs and trade unions.
To address many Arabs’ long-held hopes for greater mobility within the EU, the Union is to propose a mobility and migration pact that includes an easing of visa policy and an additional financial package, in return for co-operation in migration policy and measures to fight against illegal immigration.
The EU plans to increase its financial assistance to its southern and eastern Mediterranean neighbours by more than €1bn as part of its 2011-2013 budget. The European Investment Bank in Luxembourg has also pledged to increase its lending to the region, while the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development may offer its expertise to some southern Mediterranean countries.
Given the uncertainties in the Arab world, it’s impossible to tell whether the EU’s offer will be enough to meet the region’s needs for more help from Europe. But its proposed financial assistance and support for democratic reforms is undeniably serious and significant.
Arab countries that fulfil their part of the bargain through fundamental reforms will then have to judge the credibility of the EU’s efforts to open its markets to their exports, facilitate the free movement of their citizens and boost its financial support both for economic development and for democracy.
If the EU’s proposals are implemented properly then they will to a large extent meet these aspirations, thus making real progress in bringing the two sides of the Mediterranean together. But Europeans must understand that the movement triggered in Arab countries goes deep. It provides an opportunity for the EU to act positively without actively interfering. The time has come for the EU to show the Arab peoples that its support is sincere, and it is also very much in Europe’s self-interest to do so, for what is ultimately at stake is the EU’s international credibility.