Europe has never had a comprehensive approach towards the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Arab Awakening has not significantly altered the calculations behind the existing policy fragmentation.
Despite framing political and economic relations with MENA through collective diplomatic frameworks, either multilateral (such as the 1995 Barcelona process) or bilateral (as the European Neighbourhood Policy), the Union has never developed a fully-fledged strategy of engagement with the region, but it has fostered partially complementary and partially mutually exclusive policy goals (such as the simultaneous promotion of democracy and security).
The lack of a comprehensive vision is a consequence of at least three factors: the persistence of political and economic post-colonial interests by many big European states, the weakness of the European External Actions Service, -still not fully operational and under-staffed- and the lack of leadership at the European level able to offer strategies if not grand visions of what Europe could and should become for its neighbourhood, and viceversa.
Europe has dealt with the MENA region tacitly endorsing a threefold sub-regional division between North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf, without however clearly spelling out the different goals and rationales of its actions and inactions.
Europe has looked at North Africa through the prism of three geopolitical concerns: domestic political stability, security for Europe and energy security. The three North African countries who have been turned upside down by the 2011 revolts, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, perfectly represent the mixture and interplay among these various concerns. Despite that, in all three cases, Brussels has successfully managed to reach something more than a common denominator on how to respond to the uprisings, from diplomatic openings to offers of increased bilateral cooperation through Advanced status recognition, to the proposal of enhanced partnerships. Europe has however failed to deliver what it has pledged in terms of direct and indirect financial help, as well as effectively exerting pressure on European member states on increased mobility and market access, two crucial issues for southern Mediterranean countries. That would represent a tangible offer, beyond the usual diplomatic symbolic carrots. Europe has also failed to come clean on its biased democracy promotion track record, characterised by ad hoc support of anti-regime political forces in the region. Some credit however goes to the capacity of the EU to find a common ground among European stakeholders, substantially helping them to get their acts together. That was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and only to a lesser extent, with regard to Libya.
In the case of Libya, military action has been strongly invoked by two European member states, France and Great Britain, who have failed to get Germany on board but have managed a successful transatlantic intervention. Tunisia, considered a crucial and much-needed showcase for European foreign policy, has been courted as never before, both with economic pledges –to date unfulfilled-, as was the case on the occasion of Deauville summit last May and diplomatically, with the creation of the EU-Tunisia task force to be headquartered in Tunis. From refraining to considering Islamists worthy political opponents under the Ben Ali era, Brussels now heralds Ennahda leader Ghannouci as an inspiring example of leadership. In this dramatic turnaround, what is striking is the absence of critical assessment of Europe’s previous double standards when it came on engaging and supporting legitimate political forces opposing authoritarian governments, without differentiating according to their religious standing. While in its 2009 Cairo Speech, US President Obama indicated that the US would support any democratically-elected government, provided it ensured the respect of human rights and refused the use of violence, neither Brussels nor any major European capital have elaborated on this point. European policymakers often justify this inconsistent policy (exemplified by Europe’s invocation of free and fair elections in the region followed by the refusal to acknowledge the electoral victory of the Islamist Hamas in the Palestinian elections of 2006) by recalling the tragic experience with Algeria in the early 1990s. In Egypt, given the contested nature of the political game even among Islamist forces and the different voices within each party, Europeans are cautiously waiting to see what will happen when the Muslim Brotherhood will have to form governing coalitions. With regard to elaborating a strategy of engaging all democratically-inspired political forces, European member states keep silent but adopt slightly different approaches on the ground, with some Scandinavian countries behaving as trailblazers in this field. The EU, unable to bridge the gap on such contentious issue, has so far played a limited role as a successful mediator and has been sidelined.
In the Levant, the EU continues to be obsessed with the moribund Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), trapped in a diplomatic game that serves the ultimate goal of pro-status quo forces across the spectrum. The transformation in the Arab world in 2011 has, if anything, only added to Israel’s sense of regional isolation and to the reinforcement of an aggressively deterrence-based foreign policy posture as a corollary of a defensive approach. The American administration has been unable -and many say unwilling- to put pressure on both sides at a time when the upcoming Presidential elections significantly weaken the position of President Obama. At a time of deep tactic and strategic uncertainty, when the Syrian regime may fall and the Iranian one is progressing in its nuclear programme, despite the recently convened meeting in Amman, none is thinking about advancing ambitious negotiations. Interestingly, Europe, when the region as a whole has been turned upside down, continues to stress that its priority is favouring the role of the Quartet, without managing to be taken as a serious counterpart by the US administration and the Quartet ending up being a sort of international clearing house for US policies.
Within a framework of very weak contractual and diplomatic relations, Europe has observed the unfolding of the crisis in Syria and has hardened its stance on the regime. Brussels has pushed member states to find a diplomatic common ground, this time facilitated by the small costs incurred in imposing an embargo against the Assad regime. With the US ruling out any option of military humanitarian intervention in the country, Europe has contented itself with an observer’s role and has failed to engage with the Syrian opposition, differently from how some of its member states supported the Libyan one from the outset of the crisis. This passive attitude could reinforce skeptic perceptions of the EU and European countries in North Africa. Even in the absence of calls of R2P driven interventions, Europe could heighten its profile with regard to the Syrian crisis, in addition to the imposition of an embargo and isolation of the regime.
Lastly, at least for the past decade, the Gulf has been looked through the prism of the Iranian nuclear issue. This has been translated in the adoption of a dual track approach, within which diplomacy has become the residual element vis-à-vis the coercive one. From the engagement attempts in the 1990s and the shift from Critical to Comprehensive Dialogue, Europe’s presence in Iran has lately amounted to little more than the elaboration and implementation of draconian sanctions targeting most sectors of the Iranian economy. The EU has refrained, for example, to engage Saudi Arabia on any political issue, despite existing forum for exchanges with the Gulf Cooperation Council of which Riyadh is the main stakeholder.
The rapid and unforeseeable changes which are occuring in the region are no justification for the lack and delay in devising a sub-regional vision, whereby North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf are clearly identified with specific opportunities and strategies of engagement by the Union. Europe remains torn between a securitised approach where North Africa is looked at through the prism of soft security challenges –mainly legal and illegal migration-, and the desire to embrace and favour the political transitions towards democratic forms of governance by granting these populations more opportunities to travel and work in Europe as well as export more to Europe (but the 2014 reform of the CAP blocks any progress on this sensitive issue). In this regard, the European Commission is exerting pressure on member states, but with little success so far. Vis-à-vis North Africa, Europe righhtly reckons it does not possess the necessary resources to determine these countries’ economic recoveries, let alone provide a Marshall Plan. Relying on international financial institutions should be coupled with a strategy of helping southern Mediterranean countries devise the added value of increasing their intra-regional trade and facilitate them reach their goals through technical capacity building.
When it comes to the Levant, Europe should take a bolder approach both with regard to the MEPP as well as Syria. With regard to the former, it could accept counter-intuitive ideas, such as letting member states split (as was the case on the UN vote on the Palestinian membership bid), so as to increase the importance of Europe as a whole, consider the option of threatening to quit the Quartet unless Washington and Tel Aviv accept to move forward on re-starting negotiations on the basis of, among other things, slowly start preparing their public opinions to a deal that, whilst known by everyone in its contours, will still be perceived as a shock when the day will come.
Lastly, on the Gulf, it is about time that the EU and its member states start question whether the goal of posponing the Iranian uranium enrichment process can be reached through tough international sanctions, and more critically assess cost and benefits of an approach that has eroded the political capital of Europe not just among elites but in the population at large. At the same time, the Persian Gulf comprises the countries belonging to the GCC, with which Europe has had low intensity diplomatic relations and which are becoming more and more salient in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. An holistic diplomatic and economic engagement with these countries is overdue, but it should not become a way to foster regional tensions vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran.
To conclude, the EU has historically tended to look at the region as a mix of concerns and challenges, addressing them in a reactive way with a mix of tools, mainly economic. Long-term instruments such as the ENP should not be considered exhaustive policy approaches to the region, but be thought of as coupling more ad hoc and short and medium-term tools. The assumptions under which the Neighbourhood Policy has been based –European soft power and modernization theory, foreseeing political liberalization as a necessary consequence of economic progress- should be questioned and recalibrated in accordance with the regional reshaping. Effective early warning mechanisms able to detect groundbreaking crises and short-term crisis management responses focusing on much more bottom-up and locally generated demands should become a standard practice in EU’s dealings with its southern neighbourhood. The reshaping of the region offers a new chance to look at it through new eyes and to start creating opportunities within a pro-active foreign policy approach. Were this crisis a chance to put in brackets Euro-centric paradigms of what democracy should be identified with and the best way in which this should be promoted, or assisted, that would be much more than a lessons learnt exercise and would amount to learning by doing. It is namely not just a matter of increasing European delegations’ power on paper, or creating a European Endowment for Democracy or providing new funding specifically targeting to local NGOs. If Europe wants to matter more in the eyes of these countries, it needs to study locally produced understandings of democracy, suggest alternative ways to support their transitions and become quicker in responding to local civil society demands and inputs in terms of priorities for action in democracy assistance policies.