Two years on from the first rumblings of revolt, the path has opened a second phase in Europe’s response to the Arab spring. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president is a freely-elected civilian, and Libya has held founding elections. Elsewhere, courageous demonstrators from Syria and Bahrain to the less dramatic cases of Morocco and Jordan have persisted in their activism. The region’s new “normal” is vibrant through uncertain political contestation coupled with strikingly varied reform processes together with resilient authoritarianism. It is abundantly clear that the Middle East and North Africa offer no single play with a definitive curtain fall of consolidated democracy. The tempest is unspent; strategy is required for an unquiet future.
Some elements of Europe’s response to the Arab revolts have been admirable and timely. Quite hard on the heels of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, the EU introduced two new strategy documents and made commitments to increase funding, open up market access and facilitate the mobility of workers into Europe from southern Mediterranean states. The EU has launched a series of “task forces” to get concrete support and investment into states committed to implementing reforms. In the cases of Syria and Libya, the EU has not shied away from exerting stronger diplomatic pressure than in the past.
It is routinely pointed out that the Arab revolts have not been driven by a desire for westernisation; but it is an exaggeration to suggest that they denote an antipathy to the west which would render outside support for reforms unwelcome. With some admirable nuance, the EU has tried to walk a narrow line of offering support for Arab democracy without usurping the local ownership of reform processes. It has put most emphasis on the need to listen to what Arab reformers want. Resources have been found despite the economic crisis in Europe, but of course many elements of the EU response can be criticised as inadequate, and promises still need to be fully followed through. It would certainly be unfair to say that the EU and its members have done nothing significant to revisit their traditional aversion to encouraging Arab political reform.
Yet, a deeper problem remains. Policymakers acknowledge that the EU needs to be more flexible in responding to change in the Middle East, and that its future strategy cannot rely so heavily on simply exporting EU norms and rules. The EU still tends to work outwards from its own highly institutionalised policy frameworks, rather than mould its strategies to local trends. A strong consensus has emerged that the EU’s “enlargement-lite” model needs to be reassessed. Arab populations and political actors clearly want a different and less intrusive form of support from Europe, and the EU must now compete with an increasing presence in the Middle East of the world’s rising powers.
This is a relatively uncontroversial conclusion as even the most senior EU leadership now speaks of the need to redefine the EU’s neighbourhood policy. The trouble is that the debate seems to have got stuck at this declaratory stage. Most recognise the need for a qualitative rethink, but what form should this redefined Mediterranean take? It is one thing to realise that pre-existing policy instruments may need to be re-designed, quite another to ascertain the precise route towards a more appropriate European Neighbourhood Policy.
Some of the general principles of a new approach are already clear. The EU must work more closely on the basis of an understanding of Arabs’ demands and interests; there must be less one-sided patronising and more two-way learning. The ENP must be “multi-lateralised” to function in a way that intersects more with other powers’ roles in the Middle East, and the EU and Arab countries must begin to work together on shared problems rather than all the ‘help’ being seen to run in one direction from the EU to the Middle East.
The EU is only now beginning to feel its way towards a truly political dialogue with new forces in the region. For the first time there is a chance for such genuine dialogue with legitimate governments that have been elected democratically. The real challenge for Europe is to build trust with Islamist parties that is based on shared principles and interests. Over the last year they have become key political forces in 11 countries in the region, either in government or in opposition. But the challenge extends well beyond well-worn calls for an acceptance of and engagement with Islamist parties. Strategy must move on from this concern, which over the last decade has dominated much of the West’s often behind-the-curve thinking.
Because the Arab spring affects different states to differing degrees, it will have an impact on relative power balances in the Maghreb and Mashreq. Variations across states will compound rivalries between, say, the Gulf states and Iran. Competition for regional leadership between Saudi Arabia and Egypt is sharpened by the two countries' different political trajectories. All this will happen against the backdrop of deepening and politically manipulated Shia - Sunni tensions.
Europe’s economic crisis is combining with the Arab revolutions and leading to a repositioning of international actors. Turkey is playing a more assertive role, while Qatar and the UAE participated in last year’s NATO-led intervention in Libya. Gulf countries are providing significant amounts of funding to North Africa. Mali's subjugation to Islamist radicals poses a challenge for democracy in both sub-Saharan and northern Africa. China and other Asian powers are also discreetly seeking to shape events, so the new political context promises to reshuffle already-fragile inter-state relations in the Middle East. Uneven democratisation will transform the way issues like nuclear non-proliferation and the Arab-Israeli conflict are dealt with.
Bodies such as the Union for the Mediterranean have their part to play, but are not suited to the new challenges and therefore require deep reform. Now with more limited material incentives at its disposal, the EU's response should go beyond the upgrading of its European Neighbourhood Policy. At present its initiatives do useful work, but mainly at a technical level. A clearer vision of where the EU would like its Middle Eastern relations to be in 10 or 20 years is essential if Europe is to become the region's indispensable partner. This should be articulated through a politically bold and much more geo-strategic approach.
The EU must try to seize the Arab world’s unfolding trends as an opportunity. In some ways the Arab spring has provided a positive antidote to Europe’s relative global decline and its economic crisis. By standing up for democratic norms the EU’s image has begun to improve in the region, while China, Russia and other rising powers appear somewhat discredited. For all that, the EU must recognise the broader shifts in power and cast its Euro-Mediterranean initiatives in a very different light. The geostrategic panorama is different from 1995, when the Barcelona process was created, and the Arab upheavals should encourage a multi-lateralisation of EU policy towards Arab countries.
Institutionally, the EU should work much harder to link its own structured initiatives to the policies of others. Its existing action plans are useful in negotiating detailed aspects of bi-lateral relations and transferring some elements of technical capacity, but ideally the leading edge of the EU response to the Arab spring should be a much broader platform. The Deauville Process was a step in this direction, but has not kick-started much political dialogue and lacks follow-up. A more geostrategic forum is required as a guiding layer above the ENP and more technical initiatives.
The EU would do well to open a structured dialogue with other powers on the new challenges in the Middle East. Brussels should propose common European-Arab partnerships on shared global problems, devise common positions with other international institutions and development banks and fashion a Union for the Mediterranean that incorporates the geostrategic perspective so it could also press new initiatives like the putative European Endowment for Democracy and gain support from a wider range of backers.
The EU must fashion less direct forms of leverage through broader alliances on Middle Eastern concerns. The influence of rising powers should not be exaggerated, but the EU would do well to prepare for a far greater international engagement in the Middle East. EU diplomats pay lip service to this, but they know that in reality the EU’s policy frameworks are ill-equipped to foster multi-lateralisation.
The EU's response to political change in the Middle East has not been without merit, but the time is ripe for Europe to articulate a long-term strategic vision for the region. Epochal change has so far elicited only incremental improvements in European policies. In the next phase, the EU must aspire to more political influence but with greater regard for nuances in such a sensitive and volatile region.
Richard Youngs is Director General of the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE and Raquel C. Álvarez is an Advisor to the EU’s special representative for the southern Mediterranean region. email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org