Despite alarming reports by the UN as early as 2009 on the situation in Arab countries, until the outbreak of revolutions along the southern rim of the Mediterranean the European Union didn’t consider it necessary to redesign its policy towards these neighbours.
What is certain, though, is that the Arab spring has made everybody realise that the EU’s Mediterranean policy was not only inefficient but has focused on the wrong actors and priorities. While aiming high, it has not brought tangible results in terms of democracy, rule of law, stability and security, even if there’s been some progress in economic terms. The review of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) therefore came at an important time.
Despite its long and bumpy history, the ENP is still the key element of EU foreign policy aimed at promoting stability, peace and prosperity around Europe. On its southern flank, it started with Jacques Delores’ Barcelona Process initiative in 1995, but although that resulted in the creation of the Euro-Mediterranean community, the project failed. Eventually, in 2008 France orchestrated the setting-up of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). At the same time, following a Polish-Swedish initiative, the Eastern Partnership was created to allow interested EU member states to strengthen their relations with eastern neighbours under a simple policy umbrella.
Any objective assessment of the UfM’s achievements can leave no doubt that the project has failed for a number of very clear reasons. One is the lack of a clear common ambition, and the largely inter-governmental nature of its cooperation, as opposed to the wider communautaire method. There is a widely held view that the EU should hold ownership of the ENP in both its eastern and southern dimensions, yet the UfM was used by some member states to advance their own interests at the expense of regional dialogue and cooperation on trade issues and freedom of movement. The EU hasn’t delivered much so far, especially on the last two issues. Negotiations on the elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers on manufactured goods, agricultural products and services in the framework of the WTO have been lengthy and difficult, and on mobility some member states have stubbornly resisted what they fear would be a new wave of immigrants.
Instead of reaching out to the people in Arab countries, the EU has targeted governments and ruling elites, thus tacitly accepting the fact that they were abusing their power over their own citizens. Although the European Commission tried to introduce them in 2003, no tangible benchmarks on progress towards democratisations were ever imposed on Europe’s southern partners. Multiannual aid planning also prevented the “more-for-more” concept – rewarding the Arab countries that undertake reforms to establish democracy, respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law – from being implemented. As a result, it was of no importance whether recipient countries improved their performance because they would anyway receive what had been promised financially.
The final setback for the UfM has been the lack of progress of the Middle East peace process and in the western Sahara, making it completely meaningless as a political and security framework.
Today, though, we have an opportunity to revamp the southern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Yet the slowness and limited scope of the EU High Representative’s reactions, and the very modest actions undertaken by a few member states, has once again laid bare the European Foreign and Security Policy’s limitations. Not surprisingly, even the EU’s proposed review of its southern neighbourhood approach took time.
In March of this year, the High Representative and the European Commission jointly published a communication called “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”, followed in late May by a further communication “A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood”. Once again, the European Institutions set out their priorities, namely democratic transformation, support for civil society and sustainable economic development. It was nothing revolutionary, although fairly ambitious and based on aid conditionality. EU support was to be tailored to the specific needs of each country, and their access to the EU market for agricultural produce would be improved, as would freedom of movement to EU countries, especially for young people. In short, the EU’s southern neighbourhood was offered the same type of partnerships as those already on the table for the East, namely greater economic cooperation and mobility. This was followed by a €1.2bn increase in funding for 2011-2013 as well as additional resources from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
But the challenge is going to be whether the EU and its member states can really deliver on these proposals. It isn’t going to be an easy task. We can’t know where the transitions in the southern Mediterranean will lead to, and we also have to convince our own producers and the powerful agricultural lobby that opening European markets to southern produce is vitally important, while explaining to public opinion that their improved mobility is not a serious threat to European labour markets or national social security systems.
In our EU policy review we will also have to stick firmly to the “more-for-more” concept. Clear benchmarks and timetables also have to be set-up, and there has to be the strong involvement of national parliaments and civil society organisations in the whole policymaking process. The EU’s efforts should therefore focus on strengthening administrative systems, encouraging the fight against corruption, institutional capacity-building and the overall development of civil society. We must also provide aid to help boost regional cooperation between Arab countries, with the Nile Basin Initiative being a good example of this.
The new ENP will be a success only if it holds other governments accountable on issues like human rights and democracy. Stability at any price is no longer acceptable. The EU has to take a holistic approach in which its member states play a key role in the implementation of a policy framework based on promoting values that are not just ours but are universal. This means putting the focus on civil society organisations like trade unions, NGOs and organisations that represent all walks of life, be it employers, or farmers, women, religious faiths, consumers, youth, journalists, teachers, local government bodies, universities, students or the various climate change actors.
The Arab spring created room for hope that re-launching the Euro-Mediterranean process on a new footing is not only possible but will bear fruit. But we must not forget and abandon our Eastern Partnership neighbours. The EU’s activities there are equally important for the strengthening of democracy and economic reform, and Europe must guard carefully against the risk of its neighbourhood efforts in the south eclipsing those in the east.