22nd Oct 2020


Opportunity knocks? The Arab uprisings and Euro-Mediterranean Relations

  • Migrants wanting to get into the EU - "There is clearly much for Europe to learn from the dynamism and courage of the Tunisian and Egyptian civil societies" (Photo: IOM)

The latest European Commission offer of €140 million extra in aid to Tunisia, in return for a commitment to control emigration, is emblematic of a disappointingly unimaginative EU response thus far to the historic popular uprisings in North Africa.

The Mediterranean has been one of the major theatres for EU foreign policy. Since the 1970s, and especially since the Barcelona Declaration of 1995, it has developed a set of policies and instruments to support cooperation, reform and development. In essence it sought to inculcate gradual structural socio-economic and institutional change, leading to long-term modernisation and development.

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Put simply, it was hoped that liberal economic reforms (non-political in themselves) would gradually develop a more pluralist society and political system. Although the neoliberal bent of its economic policies is open to criticism, these efforts have been, all things considered, an enlightened project for peaceful change. However, there was always a clear obstacle to the EU's vision.

The elites in charge of these undemocratic regimes were not on board with the long-term vision of political change and would attempt to manipulate the economic reforms in their own political interest. In truth there was little the EU, the World Bank, the US or other international actors could do to promote meaningful reform if the Mubarak or Ben Ali regimes were determined to manipulate it.

Now however, although the transition is less than complete, there is a new political dispensation in these countries and the prospects for the EU to use its economic instruments in support of its enlightened self-interest are infinitely greater. (Libya is obviously a special case, but Libya was always distinct from the EU's other North African partners). This requires a change in mentality. The first point to stress is that these democratic changes will not in the short term improve the EU's security concerns (whether that is migration or even terrorism). Such fears should not be allowed to occlude the long-term prospects.

The situation requires a generous response from Europe. This applies to the EU itself and to the collective Mediterranean Union (the new and troubled institution inspired by President Sarkozy). We have heard a lot in recent years as to the EU's its role as a ‘global player'. If it cannot rise to the occasion of this opportunity in its own backyard then any notions of the EU playing a progressive role internationally will lack credibility. Expectations and hopes as to the EU's role still revolve around what it could contribute with regard to economic development, and the consolidation of democracy. Of course it is extremely unfortunate that this opportunity has arisen during a period of acute financial crisis in the Union.

Some things can be done without increasing financial aid from Europe. A more flexible (non-reciprocal) trade policy could be offered to the embryonic democracies and the practice (already initiated in the Mediterranean and the Eastern Neighbourhood) of using the EU's political capital to raise funds for development projects could be expanded on. In the medium term the EU (and the Eurozone in particular) will have to put its own house in order, in a manner that doesn't involve squeezing the economic life out of its peripheral members, if it wants to play a leading and progressive role.

Of course Europe has always been more than the EU and there remains a massive opportunity for European regions, businesses and civil society to expand the Euro-Mediterranean networks that do exist. Previously, cooperation and learning between social forces on both shores was primarily unidirectional, given the superior resources and greater liberties on the European side, but there is clearly much for Europe to learn from the dynamism and courage of the Tunisian and Egyptian civil societies. Particularly as the Northern shore of the Mediterranean may well be facing its own challenges of transition in the coming times.

The writer is Lecturer in International Relations and Politics at the School of Management, University of Plymouth


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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