The year 2011 kept the entire world on tenterhooks as popular uprisings reached a crescendo in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen followed by a violent crackdown of revolt in Syria and end of a dictatorial regime in Libya. The events unleashed new debates pertaining to the geopolitical dynamics in the European neighbourhood. The EU support to political reforms in neighbouring countries has met with limited results and it clearly needs to take a wake-up call and carefully formulate its strategies in light of the events that are unfolding along its borders. The grandiose schemes and strategies have failed to deliver on the ground and the EU has been compelled to revise the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) early this year to consolidate the changes ushered in by the coloured revolutions.
The revolutions have indeed demonstrated a clear discord between a long term strategy and immediate response to crisis in the neighbourhood. The revolts followed by the recently concluded elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have made it apparent that the democratic deficits and political rights need to be understood as amongst the systemic causes that can undermine even so called stable regimes. A key fear in the West is about who comes to power? Many are at discomfort about political Islam gaining a stronghold in the region, thus reviving in some sense the post 9/11 discourse. The dilemma for the EU and for the US is that accelerated promotion of democracy and human rights in the Arab world risks undermining existing regimes that are sometimes helpful in counter-terrorism, and could lead to fundamentalists taking power who will then disregard democracy and human rights.
So far the necessity to ward off non-traditional threats to security like those emanating from cross-border migration, crime, drug trade etc. have led the EU to tilt in favour of stability to the extent of even supporting autocracies in the name of stability. In both the East and the South the EU’s capacity to foster democratic reform processes has largely been dependent on the political will of the ruling elites in the partner countries, whose main interest is staying in power – which undermines the democratic political process. The EU proved to be an ineffective player in promoting political pluralism in the neighbourhood as Member States hold diverse views on each issue, thus making policies a patchwork of interests and values, without being effective.
The EU’s democracy promotion efforts are further compounded by the strategic interests in the region pertaining to securing energy needs and the Middle East conundrum. An important consideration for the EU has been the fear that political change and democratisation could, in the short term, produce instability. The priority attached to counter terrorism since 9/11 has further complicated this aim. Within the EU there is an apparent absence of political will fundamentally to revise approaches to democracy support, even if the shortcomings of these policies have been apparent for some time.
However, much can be done to improve the EU’s support of democratic change in the neighbourhood. The Arab Spring presents an opportunity for the West especially the EU to genuinely commit itself towards consolidating democracy in the region as espoused in the European Security Strategy (2003) and is also one of the foremost objectives of the ENP. There is a need for greater flexibility and more tailored responses in dealing with the neighbourhood – whether they are experiencing fast regime change or a prolonged process of reform and democratic consolidation. One of the challenges for the EU is to combine the ENP and the Euro Mediterranean Policy (EMP) to generate positive effects in the Mediterranean area: regional co-operation through the latter and political and economic reforms through the former. Another challenge is to achieve a balance between EU security concerns and mutual interests and identities that will eventually be shared with the neighbours.
The problem lies less with the policies than it is with the EU itself; such policies could be made more effective to the extent that EU institutional and political cohesion increased. The ENP review undertaken by Commission in May 2011 notes the encouraging progress made by neighbours like Moldova, Ukraine, Morocco and Jordan. The Lisbon Treaty has allowed the EU to strengthen the delivery of its foreign policy: co-operation with neighbouring countries can now be broadened to cover the full range of issues in an integrated and more effective manner. The new policy could anchor the neighbouring countries to a comprehensive framework of relations through which to pursue both development and stabilisation. While the emphasis continues to be on safeguarding human rights in these regions, democracy promotion policies, as a whole, must be upgraded and better articulated and structured. The EU should also rope in non-state actors through partnerships and thus give a greater political role to civil society organisations to help them contribute in fostering democracy and reform in the region.
Call for a broad political reform in the region as made evident by the Arab Spring is the need of the hour and the EU must seize the moment not just to increase the rhetoric of its normative power but to take some concrete steps in order to consolidate the change and integrate the moderate Islamist groups into the overall domestic political process respecting the popular mandate.
Manasi Singh is a Doctoral Candidate at Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.