What next?

The Arab Spring revolutions and the possible future

It was commented earlier that the transformations wrought by the Arab Springs are far from over. And in fact I would argue that they are bound to effect deep change in Euro-Mediterranean relations.

Until the Arab Springs, the southern Mediterranean states had sought to gain international legitimacy by entering into free-trade agreements with the EU, but these agreements were asymmetrical, working to their disadvantage. As a result, their exports declined, their manufacturing became less competitive, and their agricultural products faced EU trade barriers (Mouhoud 2012, 44). “In exchange for political recognition by the EU,” these states also “pledged to lead an emigration policy of repression against their citizens and those of sub-Saharan Africa transiting through their respective territories” (ibid.).

The Arab Springs changed the lay of the land in such a way as to delegitimize both the ENP and the UfM, for they both stood on the authority of the old ruling elites. What, then, is coming into sight on the horizon for the Arab states of the Mediterranean region?

As concerns the prospect of economic growth within the Arab world, it is worth mentioning the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA), formed in Cairo in 1996, and now comprising seventeen Arab countries: “Over the period 1997-2009, the GAFTA resulted in a 26% (Abedini and Peridy 2008) increase in intraregional commerce” (Mouhoud 2012, 45).

But the deepest changes will concern Euro-Mediterranean relations. The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 enabled the EU to fully appreciate the challenges the authoritarian governments of the southern Mediterranean countries were facing from their own people. This led the EU to reconsider its relations with these Arab countries, setting new priorities for its own action. Euro-Mediterranean policies had been following a specific order of priorities (Cassarino 2012, 19ff): at the top of the agenda was illegal immigration into the EU, under whose pressure the southern Mediterranean countries took measures to stem that flow of migration; next came the issue of security in response to the September 11 attacks, which led the southern Mediterranean countries to take up the fight against terrorism, even if this meant loosening their commitment to democracy and human rights; and in the third place was stability, a concern that played into the hands of authoritarian regimes, which managed to use stability as a proxy for good governance—an idea that in turn translated into government control


GAFTA was meant to chart a course towards a greater internationalization of economies confined within the boundaries of a limited regional integration. To this end it eliminated tariff as well as nontariff trade barriers, but in the end it didn’t break out of the mould of a conventional trade agreement centred on the exchange of goods and services. See Romagnoli and Mengoni 2014, 209.

of the economy, thereby foreclosing the possibility of fostering an open market economy. Let us therefore look at what happened to these Euro-Mediterranean priorities in the wake of the Arab Springs and the transformations they set in motion, or what new set of policies took their place.

The core of the EU’s policy response to the Arab Spring revolutions is laid out in two communications issued in 2011 by the European Commission and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy: “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean” (EC 2011a) and “A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood” (EC 2011b), providing a review of the ENP.

In the first place, the ENP review recognized the need for the EU to devote greater resources to its neighbours. Financial aid was to increase to 1.2 billion euros by 2013, with an additional 1 billion euros in loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was to earmark an initial 1 billion euros for operations to begin in the Mediterranean area. This aid was aimed at fostering economic and social development, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and microcredit, reducing economic disparities, and starting pilot projects for agricultural and rural development. Furthermore, the southern Mediterranean countries were offered the opportunity to enter into Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs), designed to make good on the ENP promise to enable neighbouring countries to participate in the European single market (Colombo and Tocci 2012, 87).

In the second place, the ENP review called for “stricter conditionality and incentives for best performers” (EC 201 lb, 21), with a view to achieving “deep democracy” (Balfour 2012, 64), under which neighbouring countries were to ensure free and fair elections, the enjoyment of basic freedoms (such as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly), the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, while committing to the fight against corruption, among other actions. The incentives for embarking on these reforms were part of a package in “assistance, trade, and mobility” (ibid.).

However, there is also an underbelly to conditionality. As Rosa Balfour aptly comments:

It is questionable whether the focus on conditionality is appropriate. Not only is it notoriously hard for the EU to deliver on the conditions it sets, but the premises upon which conditionality is based do not reflect the postArab Spring context as they rely on asymmetrical relations between the EU and North Africa and the Middle East and on the assumption that the European model is attractive and relevant to these societies. (Ibid.)

It is also questionable whether the focus on conditionality is relevant in itself. Sovereignty has always been an important principle in the postcolonial Arab world, seen as part of national identity, and the notion of “dignity”—personal and national—has been a recurring theme in revolutionary North Africa and the Middle East. (Ibid., 76)

Furthermore, there are “many ways [in which] the revision of conditionality seems to reflect an internal demand for a redefinition of ‘’ethical’ standards for engagement, following the exposure of contradictions in the EU’s relations with dictators” (ibid., 68). Balfour accordingly argues for

a more equal relationship [...], moving away from the enduring “unacknowledged cultural legacy of colonialism” (Halliday 2011, 52) and understanding the national “dignity” that moved so many in North Africa and the Middle East to get rid of their perennial leaders. Interdependence, rather than conditionality based on an asymmetry of power, and reference to universal principles, rather than to standards of democracy, make it legitimate to support them abroad, notwithstanding the accusations of double standards that the EU often encounters. And identifying common interests and concerns that reflect the demands of the people in this common Mediterranean space may be a way to establish a new dialogue with a changing Arab world. (Balfour 2012, 68)

In the third place, the EU’s communications of 2011 underscore the need for a greater commitment to developing relations with civil societies, private actors in the socioeconomic space, and youth and women’s groups in the southern Mediterranean countries. This new awareness comes from the EU having understood that a transition away from the authoritarian regimes of the past inevitably means working with nonstate actors, that is, with people and organizations in civil society.

However, the revised criteria that formed the basis of the ENP have their shortcomings. In the first place, as has been correctly observed, the ENP continues to be straitjacketed within the boundaries of a security policy (Colombo and Tocci 2012, 91).

In the second place, the DCFTAs continue to require compliance with the criteria for participating in the European single market, whereas it would make more sense to deregulate this market, especially in agriculture. In this connection, the crisis the EU is currently undergoing should not be considered separately from the transformation the Arab countries are themselves undergoing: if this latter (still incomplete) transformation moves forward, it would enable the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries to “renegotiate the free trade agreement with the EU, demanding both the opening of EU agricultural markets and temporary asymmetry to the benefit of [those] countries” themselves (Mouhoud 2012, 44).

Furthermore, Euro-Mediterranean policy continues to insist on conditionality without clarifying how this mechanism might me made operational. And, finally, the revised ENP is premised on the idea of bilateral relations even if it is on a multilateral basis that policy in areas such as infrastructure, communications, and the fight against organized crime is best framed (Colombo and Tocci 2012, 94).

So, although the revised ENP could signal a new season on the horizon for Euro-Mediterranean relations, its shortcomings suggest otherwise. Lending support to that assessment is the turmoil that swept across much of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Springs, not only in Egypt—the disarray it was thrown into with the 2011 revolution and the ensuing move to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization—but also in Syria, with a civil war whose devastating effect has destabilized the entire region, making its future highly unpredictable. Only Tunisia’s democratic constitution of 2014 gives reason for hope, offering a model for an authentic democracy across the Arab world.

On the other hand, while the Arab Spring revolutions have made for an extraordinary opportunity to set Euro-Mediterranean relations on a new footing, the EU’s ability to effect authentic change in the southern Mediterranean has been constrained by constant economic headwinds, first under the protracted effect of the global financial crisis of 2007-08 (Paciello 2013, 83), and now under the COVID-19 recession.

The global financial crisis had the effect of intensifying competition among EU member states, while calling into question the EU’s common commercial policy. It also stalled progress on trade negotiations with the southern Mediterranean countries, the only exception being Morocco, with which negotiations on a DCFTA were started early in 2013. At the same time, however, the economic slump in Europe prompted some of these countries, and in particular Egypt and Tunisia, to look for other trading partners. As a result, they built closer economic ties with Turkey and the Persian Gulf countries, mainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia (ibid., 86).

Seemingly unable to learn from its own past failures, the EU continues to soldier on with its traditional trade policy. Even its conditionality policy, severed from any economic incentives, hampers the EU’s ability to influence the political process abroad, especially considering that non-European states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey offer aid without strings attached, and in particular without requiring political reform (ibid., 88).

In summary, Europe is confronted with the practical paradox of having to recognize that it is imperative to overhaul Euro-Mediterranean relations, while at the same time having to deal with an underperforming economy that is crippling its ability to present the southern Mediterranean countries with a mutually advantageous economic partnership proposal.

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