The European Union’s failed approach to Arab Spring

Few predicted that an act of self-immolation in Tunis by a desperate street-vendor would lead to a contagion that would spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, toppling many a dictator in the process. In certain respects, the geo-political and strategic structures of the region are now changing, though few can accurately predict what the final outcomes will be.

Western capitals were certainly taken by surprise at the rate the revolutions spread across the region, and consequently, were placed under pressure to take a stance on the protest movements in each country, particularly given that many were Western-friendly regimes. Their most shamefully delayed response was reflected in the European Union’s approach to the Arab Spring. The EU’s behaviour was characteristic of a decade old policy; the European-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) agreement, that has been rendered obsolete by the sudden shift in the narrative of the region. Therefore the EU was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden crises and revision of the status quo and its policy proved to be ineffective and irrelevant.

In addition, the double-standards that were being applied to different countries has proventhat the EU has lost all legitimacy as a coherent and effective international actor. For instance, the EU chose to extend its support only towards opposition movements that it considered to have a high chance of success. In Egypt, there was much hesitation from Brussels, Paris and Berlin, culminating in a series of spontaneous and weak demands for an end to the bloodshed. It was only on 4 February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign, that the European Council released a statement condemning the acts of violence and those who encouraged it. Furthermore, only a few weeks before Mubarak’s resignation, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon was on holiday in Egypt courtesy of Mubarak’s regime, including a luxury cruise on the Nile. The revelation of this strikes a severe blow to the legitimacy of the EU and its member-states.

In Tunisia, the EU was a fragmented and heterogeneous spectator as the majority of EU states opted for a ‘wait and see’ approach so as not to offend the regime, in case the protestors were unsuccessful in overthrowing the government. This approach proved to be futile as support for the protestors only came once Zane El Abiding had been overthrown, undermining the legitimacy of the EU. It is clear that the EU has failed to formulate a blueprint, comprehensive policy direction for the region. Rather, its responses have been a string of reactive policies towards the events in the region.

The failures of the more recent European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) also weaken its credibility towards the MENA region. EU member states’ were concerned that a change in leadership in capitals such as Cairo and Tunis would have serious geopolitical implications. Those feelings were not completely unwarranted given Egypt’s frosty relationship with Israel in recent times. In fact, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and the ENP, admitted this sentiment, “too many of us fell petty to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region”. Many EU states were reluctant to cut ties with repressive, authoritarian regimes that were quashing protestors because of deep economic ties with many of these autocracies.

Additionally, under the most recent initiative, the ‘Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean’, a series of humanitarian aid and other funding was provided by the EU to deal with the immediate humanitarian calamities and unstable political landscape in the MENA region. Through this scheme, Morocco will be given €139 million to raise living standards in rural areas and to support gender equality as a result of a new constitution that will curb the powers of the King. Similarly, Algeria would receive €35 million for its cultural and transport sector. The decision to support these semi-authoritarian regimes on a ‘more for more’ approach questions the legitimacy of the EU as an international actor, especially as pledges for constitution reform in both Algeria and Morocco appear farcical.

Whilst optimists within the EU envision a Euro-Mediterranean community of democracies, it is highly unlikely that such a union will come about, given the fragile nature of many MENA countries. The EMP, the ENP and the Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean initiatives constitute as proof that the EU has failed in its approaches towards dealing with the Arab Spring and subsequently emphasises that it should not be regarded asa serious international actor in the foreign policy arena.


About amalvarghese
Amal Varghese is a Contemporary Debate Columnist for Access at the Australian Institute of International Affairs

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