What if? – policy analysts ask it everyday. They are scenario builders, operating under the assumption that their course of action will bring about a desired outcome. Sometimes they even break the taboo and look backwards too, turning their “what ifs?” into “if onlys” – should we have done that thing we were pondering but then dismissed, they ask; had we done things differently, might we have avoided the mess we are in now? And yet, what sets policy analysts apart from historians is that they try to draw practical lessons from their “what ifs” rather than simply lamenting lost chances.

The EU’s response to the Arab Spring is deemed one of the great missed opportunities in the bloc’s history. Analysts wonder whether the EU actually following through on its rhetoric may have avoided the meltdown of these democratic movements. And yet, it is missing the point to simply ask what would have happened had the EU really gotten serious about implementing its three Ms program, offering market access, mobility, and money to Arab countries. That will lead us to lament lost chances rather than draw practical lessons.

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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EU integration is typically driven by a technocratic ratchet mechanism – an initiative in one field spills over into action in another. The ratchet mechanism in the EU’s external dimension is far more political. This is an aspirational policy where, through high-level international commitments and conditionality mechanisms, the EU forces itself onto a certain course. It is a natural part of EU external policy to overshoot on rhetoric and then scramble to put the necessary internal reforms in place to meet it.

In this context, we must consider not only whether the EU’s promised policies would have helped support a transformation in Arab countries, but also if the envisaged internal reforms would have been helpful and realistic. If this were the case, could we have continued them?

The EU’s Three Ms

In March of 2011, in rather quick reaction to the revolutions in the Arab world, the EU Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) presented a substantially updated version of the bloc’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The central pillars of the new policy, far exceeding the classic EU approach to foreign aid, were called the three Ms, providing not just substantial but also politically-tailored support to societies in turmoil.

In 2014 it is clear that the EU did not live up to the expectations it created. The EU is today criticized for “having lost its Southern neighborhood,” for being a marginal player in the region, and for once more having missed a strategic opportunity to be a forceful agent of change. So, what if the bloc had opened its markets for competitive products from the southern Mediterranean, lifted its restrictions on refugees and immigrants, and disbursed substantial amounts of money to influence the developments on the ground?

Markets first: One of the key problems created by the uprisings in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia was that they led to a precipitous economic downswing. Production dipped, tourism collapsed, and capital was withdrawn on a large scale. The EU had only one really effective means of response: abolishing trade barriers in sectors where the transforming countries had a comparative advantage over the EU. Gaining access to the huge European marketplace for agricultural products, textiles, and low-tech industrial products could have prodded entrepreneurs and investors into providing the cash-strapped economies with investments and liquidity. Moreover, the EU would finally have shaken off its reputation for protectionism and even “economic colonialism.”

That, at least, was the theory. Yet, it is unclear whether these positive effects would have been achievable. Would the stimulus of opening markets have made an immediate difference? Would weakened Arab economies have been able to adapt swiftly enough to grasp the new opportunities? Would governments in the region have reciprocated the EU’s move towards economic openness, deregulating and unleashing market forces, or would market exposure perhaps even have had a detrimental effect?

While the first M’s effect on the Arab Spring is far from clear, the internal effects on the EU would have been enormous. It would have been forced to spend large sums compensating European farmers and manufacturers. The impact on the budget negotiations for the Multiannual Financial Framework (the EU’s budget for the period 2014-2020) would have been profound. Similarly profound would have been the impact on the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which could not have survived in its current form. Real CAP reform, an issue that has been on the EU agenda for the better part of an entire generation, would have been unavoidable. Fisheries, consumer protection, and health policies would also have been affected.

Mobility next. Again, the actual impact on the countries that it was supposed to help is hard to assess. Could a country like Egypt have exported a significant number of unemployed young people to relieve some of the pressures on its labor market? Would only the best and brightest have decided to leave, robbing Egypt of the very higher education expertise that it so desperately needs to build a modern state and economy? Would they have returned to enrich their home countries with a reverse knowledge transfer? Would migratory flows from sub-Saharan Africa have increased, creating veritable refugee tourism to Europe? If none of this sounds implausible, none of it is certain either.

Once again, the impact on Europe itself is much easier to predict. A bust-up over the actual numbers of people allowed in and national quotas (how many from which country, and which European country accepts how many?) would have immediately ensued – the EU has real competencies only in the field of short-term visas. Discussions over free movement, work permits, access to welfare, and the recognition of diplomas would have been massive and heated, intensified by pressure to get quick results. Populist right-wing movements across Europe would have used the increased debate for their own purposes, trying to cash in on a heightened sense of fear in an already charged atmosphere.

Under these tense circumstances, leaders in Europe would have been forced to create not only improvised immigration programs, but also quick fixes in immigration policies. Under the best of circumstances, this could have produced the kernel of a truly Europe-wide immigration policy. In the worst case, existing problems in this field could have been strongly aggravated, especially in countries with sizable North African communities, such as France, Spain, and the Netherlands, as these would be the places toward which the majority of new immigrants would likely gravitate.

Finally, money. The impact of large-scale spending in the recipient countries would be unclear. It seems highly likely that the political elites, regardless of their affiliation, would spend the cash primarily on consolidating their power base by keeping the small, informal power coalitions that keep them in office contented. But as to the EU, if it had actually intended to follow through with this agenda, it could not have failed to ask the following questions: what do we actually want to buy? How much money is required? And who is in charge of spending it? Under intense political pressure to get value for money, a profound strategic debate in Europe on the short- and long-term goals of strategic investment would have ensued – for the first time in history, under very trying circumstances.

A large spending program would also have required deep coordination between the EU institutions and the member states. None of the mechanisms in the EU Commission or, say, the European Investment Bank (EIB) would have been sufficient in dealing with strategic amounts of money and highly political ends, ultimately requiring a new mechanism through which the funds could be channeled to recipient countries. At a political and technical level, the Commission and the EEAS would have been forced to work together very closely, a welcome side effect of the emergency not without its own frictions. Likewise, member states would have been forced to enable the institutions to execute a grand-scale investment of this kind. This could have worked wonders for the so-called buy-in of EU countries into a more unified European foreign policy.

A major question would be whether the geopolitical nature of the exercise would have made it necessary to forgo the high principles of conditionality and values-based foreign policy. Conditionality has sometimes been blamed for turning grand strategic action into an effort at bookkeeping. Much would depend whether the goal of the spending spree would be to create stability or to aim at something a bit bigger, longer term, and sustainable. In any case, there would be a strong risk that by spending in a rushed, heavy-impact way, the EU could create corruption on a grand scale in the recipient countries.

Unclear Political Impact

On balance, it is much more likely that the domestic dynamics that have played out over the past three years in the Arab world would have remained largely unchanged by the EU’s three Ms policy in the region. Too deeply embedded in these societies are political and social fault lines, not easily affected by outside players like the EU. The Muslim Brotherhood still would have dominated the political scene, and their downfall in Egypt would have been merely slowed but not prevented. Furthermore, protesters of all political stripes had made it clear from the outset that this revolution was “theirs,” and that outside players, especially from the West, should for once stay out. It is even possible that many of the new players in the region would have rejected Western help and Western money for fear of being seen as collaborators and traitors.

In geopolitical terms, very heavy EU investment would have made close coordination with the United States indispensable. This stands in stark – and ostensibly positive – contrast to the unsynchronized reality of European and American reactions to the Arab Spring. And yet, a visibly coordinated effort could have intensified the feeling in the Arab World that, once again, the region was destined to become a playing field for external players. Moreover, Europe’s intensified engagement could also have triggered a response by other heavily invested players in the region, namely Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates. Perhaps it would have even led to intensified engagement by China and Russia, the former being heavily dependent on the region’s oil, the latter with a strong interest in keeping oil prices high and maintaining its (albeit limited) strategic influence in the region.

So ironically, the three Ms would have probably had the strongest impact in Europe itself. They would have had a large influence on the way EU foreign policy is being planned and conducted, on EU development and neighborhood policies, on the relationship between the member states and EU institutions, and on many policy developments at the national level. They could have led to a disproportionate EU focus on the Southern neighborhood at the expense of the Eastern neighborhood, leading to internal friction in the EU. They might have also even given the question of the EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) a very different dynamic. There is something part tragic, part comical in the idea that a massive foreign policy engagement would change the subject of that policy more profoundly than its object. In a backhanded way, this is proof that the transformative power of EU foreign policy must never be underestimated.

This article was originally published in the PISM/DGAP counterfactuals series.