22nd Oct 2020

Africa shock to cause 'sea change' in EU foreign policy

  • Member states such as France and Spain would like to see more EU funding directed southwards (Photo: wonker)

The European Commission has promised a "sea change" to the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), with critics saying that recent events in north Africa have highlighted its ineffectual nature.

Stricter "conditionality" attached to EU funds and greater "differentiation" between how much target states receive are two ideas due to come up in a forthcoming review of the policy, a commission spokeswoman said on Thursday (24 February).

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"We do recognise that lessons need to be learnt," Natasha Butler said of the recent turmoil in north Africa. "There has been a sea change in the region and we are ready for a sea change in terms of our approach," she added. "That means we are ready to strengthen differentiation, we are ready to move more on conditionalities."

The ENP reform proposals are to be published in a review on 20 April and were debated by the 27 EU commissioners on Wednesday. EU diplomats are also expected to discuss the subject ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers next month.

Devised in 2004 as a means of building better relations with the Union's closest neighbours, the ENP has recently taken flak from a wide range of people.

British Prime Minister David Cameron this week said it needed "radical reform" after EU financial assistance worth around €1.7 billion for countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in recent years failed to bring about the political and market reforms they were supposed to.

Ziad Abdel Samad, director of the Arab NGO Network for Development, whose members include NGOs in many of the north African and Middle East countries currently seeing turmoil, said the ENP must focus on strengthening civil society.

"The main objective of the EU policy was to sign 'Association Agreements' with neighbouring states, primarily designed to boost economic growth," Mr Samad told EUobserver on Thursday. "But societal changes were not addressed property ... the redistribution of wealth is a very important factor ... and economic growth is not enough without political reform."

After a day of meetings in Brussels, Mr Samad said it was clear EU officials were "under shock" from bloodshed in the Libya, Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings. "They are listening very attentively, they want to know what went wrong ... but don't know in what direction [to go]," he said.

In a letter to EU high representative Catherine Ashton this month, France, Spain and four smaller EU members said the Union should give less money to its post-Soviet neighbours in the east and more to southern neighbours on the Mediterranean rim.

An analysis paper attached to the letter noted that out of the €12 billion set aside for the European Neighbourhood Policy from 2007 to 2013, just €1.80 is being spent per capita in Egypt and €7 in Tunisia compared to €25 in Moldova. Two-thirds of overall ENP money already goes to the south, but the countries in question are more populous.

The EU's difficulties in dealing with the region have also been highlighted by the near collapse of the Union for the Mediterranean, a multilateral club set up in 2008 encompassing 43 countries from Europe and the Mediterranean. The body failed to hold a planned summit last year and its secretary general resigned last month citing "difficult circumstances."

EU member states have also struggled to reach a co-ordinated position on Libya sanctions or a strategy to deal with the recent arrival of thousands of migrants from Tunisia.

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