Supporting transitions in the Arab world


by Kristina Kausch

Two years after the uprisings in the Arab world, the future of the region looks highly uncertain. Trends are likely to continue oscillating between democratic advances, polarisation and authoritarian setbacks. At the same time, the uprisings have accelerated a number of power shifts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that are likely to affect the European Union’s (EU) position and influence in the region. Europeans should be ready to understand the region’s new paradigm as it gradually takes shape. During 2013, the challenge will be to translate this understanding into more efficient policy frameworks, building on the EU’s initial response to the Arab uprisings.

Europe’s response to Arab uprisings

After initial hesitation, many elements of the EU’s response to the MENA uprisings and ensuing transitions have been valuable and timely. Following the comprehensive review of its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) initiated in 2010, the EU adjusted its approach to the region in the spring of 2011. The most notable features of this changed approach 56

stressed the need to support ‘deep democracy’ rather than prioritisingstability; streamlining conditionality on the principle of ‘more for more’;and pledging to respond to long-standing Southern demands, the ‘threeMs’: money, markets and mobility.

The newly appointed EU special representative for the Mediterranean, Bernadino León, has set up ‘task forces’ that assemble different EU and international financial institutions to bundle and tailor Europe’s support towards specific countries. Little progress has been made on mobility, but in 2011 the EU mustered over €80 million in new funds to support the transitions. In 2012, the EU re-oriented assistance programmes and made an additional €1 billion available for the Southern neighbourhood for the period up to 2013. It also increased the lending ceiling of the European Investment Bank (EIB) by €1.15 billion and extended the mandate of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to the EU’s Southern neighbours. EU and national – France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom (UK) – commitments to jointly support the Arab transitions under the umbrella of the G8’s Deauville Partnership have also been notable, although many of these commitments have yet to be followed up. And, putting an end to years of complicit political exclusion, the EU and its member states have – if grudgingly – embraced the democratically elected Islamist leaders in the South.

All these efforts have genuine merit. However, the credibility of the EU’s commitment to ‘deep democracy’ is put in doubt by the continuity in its relations with countries such as Morocco, Jordan and Algeria. Non-democratic regimes in these countries have contained mass protests by pro-actively proposing constitutional and legal reforms. However, none of these qualify as steps towards the ‘deep’ kind of democracy espoused by the EU. With little appetite to incite more turmoil in the MENA region, the danger is that some EU policies continue to follow the flawed stability logic from which it pledged to distance itself in 2011. 57

Upcoming challenges and opportunities

The most urgent challenge is to reduce the potential negative impact of regional insecurity on Southern Mediterranean democracies. This includes making headway on the Syrian crisis, on the Iranian nuclear dossier, on the Sinai and in the Sahel region. The Gordian knot for 2013 is how to end atrocities against the Syrian people while avoiding regional security spill-over effects. As argued elsewhere in this volume, however, the EU’s influence on the Syrian dossier is limited. But other challenges are within the EU’s reach.

Societal polarisation accompanying fragile transitions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya threatens to undermine the legitimacy of urgently needed reforms. In Egypt, confrontations over the constitution and the powers of the government have put the Egyptian democratic transition at risk. President Mohamed Morsi’s growing importance as a regional power broker must not overshadow illegitimate power grabs that may entrench the power of a single political force (in this case the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party). With new constitutions due to be adopted in Egypt and Libya, parliamentary elections in Egypt (tentatively scheduled for February/March) and parliamentary and presidential votes in Tunisia (June), transitioning countries will have to walk tightropes to advance and stabilise their democratic gains during 2013.

The EU should take a double track. First, help Southern counterparts quickly deliver results on their most pressing economic and security challenges. Second, adapt its policy rationale to safeguard its future influence and effectiveness in the region. The broader strategic rationale of the Union’s Mediterranean policy remains in an uncertain limbo. A new ENP policy package expected in March 2013 will probably further emphasise the EU’s desire for a relationship of equals with Southern partners. But it is likely to fall short of questioning some of the EU’s basic assumptions, including the feasibility of the EU’s proclaimed goals in the region and the effectiveness of its current instruments and institutions. 58

The greatest challenge for EU MENA policies in 2013 lies at home.With economic and political uncertainty prevailing on both shores ofthe Mediterranean, there is little political momentum to launch grandnew strategies. Newly accountable to their electorates, North Africangovernments want a more balanced relationship with their Europeanpartners. But in the current climate, meaningful progress on visa liberalisationand fast-track trade liberalisation seems unlikely. Against this background,and considering that the EU’s leverage is slowly being eroded by growingcompetition from non-Western actors from the Gulf, Russia and China,effective conditionality-based policies appear increasingly unviable.

Keeping transitions on track

The EU’s distinctive added-value in supporting MENA democratictransitions is threefold: the technical support it can provide totransitioning governments; the win-win potential of Mediterranean eco-nomic cooperation; and its normative appeal as a symbol of democracy,prosperity and sovereignty sharing.

Assisting long-term institution building has been one of the EU’snotable strengths in the past, and transitioning MENA governmentscould benefit from its expertise in areas such as electoral processes, legaladvice on constitution writing, judicial reform, transitional justice andsecurity sector reform. Based on their own national experiences, manyEU member states are also well placed to provide technical support andexpertise to processes of democratisation. Both the EU and its memberstates have significantly stepped up their offers to Libya, Tunisia andEgypt following their revolutions.

However, the sensitive nature of some areas of political reform hasled to a rejection of a number of well-meant EU offers. For example,in the area of security, the EU plans to send two missions to Libya (onhumanitarian assistance and training of border security forces), but59

broader EU involvement in security sector reform is met with reservations across the region. To varying degrees, ‘foreign meddling’ has been a highly sensitive issue in all Arab transitions. Fears of reducing the legitimacy of an initiative or institution, by linking it to assistance even remotely suspected to carry foreign agendas, often weigh heavier than the need for technical support, expertise or money.

The EU can provide technical assistance in institution building on many other issues. Across the region, the EU has pledged technical support in education and vocational training, the rule of law, the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and job creation, health, civil society, and migration. Young parliaments in the region receive EU technical support on parliamentary development and state building. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission provides advice on constitution writing to the General National Congress (GNC) of Libya and the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia. Electoral assistance and/or observation have been provided in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya. Capacity building for political parties and parliaments remains an underdeveloped yet crucial area – considering political sensitivities, such efforts should be fully inclusive, balanced and transparent.

Technical cooperation has its limits, however: it can help implement political decisions, but not replace them. The EU’s pledge for a ‘partnership with the people’ through people-to-people exchanges is well meant, but its impact depends greatly on the willingness of EU member states to get serious about mobility. The positive impact of a new financial instrument such as the Civil Society Facility can easily be undermined by a lack of political support, such as the EU’s failure to ensure the inclusion of fully independent Egyptian civil society groups in a November 2012 meeting of the EU-Egypt task force.

The stability of Arab democratic transitions depends on economic delivery, so helping Southern economies get on their feet is a top priority. With an ambitious investment in balanced economic integration, the 60

EU has a chance to safeguard its long-term influence in its immediateneighbourhood, and help both shores out of their current difficulties. Thisdoes not only involve aid, investment and market access, but also enablingSouthern economies to take advantage of potential trade liberalisation.Despite lots of lip service, however, EU member states are reluctant toadvance on mobility and to better adapt trade liberalisation projects toSouthern priorities. The EU’s ambition to establish a Euro-Mediterraneanfree trade area via a series of bilateral Deep and Comprehensive FreeTrade Agreements (DCFTAs), requiring partners to adopt the EU’s fullset of market rules, is of limited attraction for Southern countries that arestruggling with enormous economic and political challenges. DCFTAsare being considered with Tunisia and Morocco. Other countries such asEgypt have rejected the offer, asking for more immediate benefits instead.In the present environment, free trade offers should be kept as slim andtargeted as possible to encourage the reduction of tariff and non-tarifftrade barriers most relevant to growth.

The EU’s ability to project values-based soft power has been itsgreatest added-value in its neighbourhood. However, nothing harmsits reputation as much as hypocritical double-speak, which erodes theEU’s credibility as a self-proclaimed normative actor. Acknowledgingthe inevitable constraints of a ‘normative’ foreign policy by spelling outlegitimate interests is a fundamental pre-condition for launching a morecredible and effective approach to relations with Southern neighbours.EU leaders, therefore, should define EU interests in ways that do notreplace but reinforce EU values.

Steps forward in 2013

2013 will be crunch time for the EU to deliver on the pledges made in2011 and show by deeds, not words, that it has learned its lessons from theArab spring. Even assuming that 2013 will bring no significant headwayon mobility or markets, there is still a lot the EU can do.61

The structural economic dependence of Southern Mediterranean countries on the EU will preserve the Union’s influence for some time to come. However, there is no reason to assume that conditionality-based policies that have failed to incentivise ‘deep’ political reform in the past should succeed now. The failure of conditionality-based policies that lack political backing and incentives to mobilise domestic constituencies is a lesson that EU member states have yet to learn.

Europeans should continue to raise concerns about democratic fundamentals and reiterate offers for assistance. New democratically elected leaders should be both supported in their reform efforts and critically watched. In 2013, the EU should try to help de-polarise Southern Mediterranean politics, by monitoring all political actors with the same level of democratic scrutiny, judging them on actions not rhetoric. Now that Egypt and other Arab players are starting to reclaim geo-political influence, Europeans must not fall into their old habit of trading geo-political support for domestic forbearance. Tunisia can provide a positive example, but the Arab world looks to Egypt, and whatever trade-offs are made there will condition the EU’s credibility on ‘supporting Arab democracy’.

The EU’s approach of heavily institutionalised integration with its Southern neighbourhood is reaching its limits. If transitions are to bear fruit, Arab governments need to deliver quick economic relief to their citizens, which the EU’s heavy cooperation schemes cannot provide. Starting from specific shared goals rather than institutions and instruments, the EU should seek to develop a broader package of flexible cooperation schemes. Such schemes could use more accommodating options for economic integration, advance shared interests such as energy cooperation, and address pressing regional security challenges. Differentiation and flexible alliances should create positive new dynamics in the short term, and help develop longer-term momentum for deeper institutionalised EU-Mediterranean cooperation in the future.


FRIDE publication: Challenges for European Foreign Policy in 2013. Renewing the EU’s role in the world

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