It was a coincidence: in December 2010, the Arab Spring erupted at the same time the EU’s new foreign policy setup formally came to life. To simplify, the EU’s Lisbon Treaty put into practice what France, Germany, and the UK had wanted: “less Brussels” in EU foreign policy. Three and a half years later, events in the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated how ill advised this choice was. In fact, there is now so little EU institutional involvement in foreign policy making that member states’ collective and individual interests are more poorly served than before the Lisbon Treaty.

What is more, there is little hope of more integrated EU foreign policy anytime soon. Big gains by Euroskeptic parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections sent a message that citizens are reluctant to give EU institutions more powers. This applies mainly to internal EU policies but, by extension, to external relations as well.

The implications of this new political landscape will take time to fully emerge. But it is already clear from the EU’s performance in three very different cases—Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco— that “less Brussels” in foreign policy has sorely damaged the EU’s standing, credibility, and influence in the Arab world.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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Indeed, a simple indication of the EU’s lack of equal interest in these three countries is the number of statements released by the EU’s foreign policy high representative, Catherine Ashton. From 2010 to 2013, Syria was the subject of 51 statements, Tunisia fifteen, and Morocco a mere five, indicating that the high representative’s attention is focused mostly on what is in the news. Clearly, seen from this public-diplomacy angle, EU foreign policy is far more reactive than normative.

Tunisia: So Far, So Good, but Little EU Involvement

If the EU were to get a grade on its actions and policies on each country affected by the Arab Spring, it would probably score a “pass” on Tunisia. But that would be more by default than by design, since it was the Tunisians themselves who pulled off a success, rather than the EU giving them decisive support. Even though Tunisian citizens today are impatient, dissatisfied, and worried about their future, the achievements to date of their country’s three-and-a-half-year transition are remarkable.

Observers have found many reasons for Tunisia’s success story. Some attribute it to the mix of cultures inherited from the Tunisian melting pot of civilizations—the country has seen Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Berbers, Arabs, Spaniards, Turks, Italians, and French—or to the Maliki school of moderate Islam that prevails in Tunisia. Others ascribe it to the peaceful transition to independence from France in 1956, to the existence of a strong middle class, or to Tunisian women’s emancipation under the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. Probably, a combination of these factors was instrumental. The turbulent experiences of Tunisia’s larger neighbors, Algeria and Libya, over past decades may also have played a role in ensuring the country’s own calmer revolution.

Throughout Tunisia’s transition process, the strength of civil society was remarkable. Trade unions, judges and prosecutors, and women’s organizations were the decisive engines that pushed political parties to compromise and condemn violence. Ultimately, these groups obliged Ennahda—which had become the dominant Islamist force in Tunisian politics and the ruling party after the 2011 revolution—to leave the government in January 2014. A collective preference for dialogue and compromise was imposed on political parties. This tendency was reinforced after the assassinations of two opposition politicians in 2013. The sorry example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which came to power after that country’s 2011 revolution before itself being overthrown within a year, may also have enticed Tunisia’s political actors to exercise moderation.

Tunisia’s transition process has not been without its frustrations. Debates on political reform have been endless. During the first democratic election for the country’s Constituent Assembly in 2011, there were up to 100 candidates in some constituencies. There have been successive changes in government over a short period, and political processes are time-consuming. All the while, citizens, especially the youth, have been waiting for critically important economic measures to be implemented.

But over and above these frustrations, the citizens’ appropriation of the 2011 revolution and their propensity for dialogue and moderation were the real engines of success. And, more than three years into their revolution, Tunisians now have a new constitution.

Did this happen without the EU being involved? Yes and no.

In addition to the many visits by the EU special representative for the Southern Mediterranean, Bernardino León, and the EU special representative for human rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU did what it promised to do: the European Commission, the union’s executive, doubled its financial support to Tunisia between 2011 and 2013 from an annual average of €80 million ($109 million) to some €150–160 million ($204–218 million). In addition, EU support for civil society projects, which were officially welcome but in practice always blocked under the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, are now operational.

This makes the EU a useful helper in the Tunisian transition process, but not an actor. Should the union do more? And would Tunisia’s civil society and political actors welcome more EU engagement?

These questions came to a head on February 7, 2014, when the new Tunisian constitution was formally adopted in Tunis. Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, declared that “European men and women salute you wholeheartedly and hail the inclusive dialogue that allowed Tunisia to obtain this result” and promised continued EU support. This was the sole moment in the entire Tunisian transition process that the EU was politically visible at the highest level.

The three-year-old transition in Tunisia is a lesson in modesty for the EU and other Western partners. The revolution was not inspired, let alone triggered, from outside; it came out of a citizens’ uprising. Outsiders simply voiced their political support, and the EU tried to steer its increased funding to the most meaningful projects under the circumstances.

Whether the EU can do more in the future will not be a decision for EU institutions to make. Rather, it will essentially be up to Tunisian citizens and political stakeholders to indicate where they need most EU support and engagement.

The EU would do well to share with Tunisia—not teach—more of its experience in inclusive governance, civil society development, media freedoms, and transitional justice.

Syria: From Bad to Insane, With No EU Engagement

At the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the EU’s main first-response instrument was humanitarian assistance. The EU and its member states have committed no less than €2.6 billion ($3.5 billion) of assistance to Syrians in Syria as well as to refugees in neighboring states since the start of the Syrian civil war three years ago.

Such assistance had little effect in Lebanon and Turkey, whose experiences showed the limits of the EU’s so-called soft power. The Lebanese government decided not to acknowledge the presence of Syrian refugees on its soil, probably to avoid retaliation from the Syrian regime. The EU then simply followed suit.

In Turkey, the scenario was even worse. When it proposed its financial support, the EU’s humanitarian agency, known as ECHO, was simply asked to write checks to the Turkish emergency aid agency and to stay away from any operational involvement in the Hatay and Gaziantep provinces, to which the bulk of the Syrian refugees started flocking in 2011.

Turkish pride had it that the government wanted to do everything by itself, and that invasive international nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies should be kept at bay. To a large extent, Ankara had its way: as of mid-March 2014, Turkey had hosted some 220,000 refugees in well-managed camps, while some 570,000 others had found their own place to stay. Although the UN refugee agency’s official number is 789,678 refugees as of June 25, 2014, some say that the number may have reached 900,000 or even 1 million.

Whether in Lebanon or in Turkey, the EU seems to have forgotten to tell the respective government that the Syrian refugee crisis had taken on a major international dimension, and that it was therefore not up to neighboring countries alone to decide how to deal with the situation. The EU also overlooked the fact that humanitarian assistance was a full part of its foreign policy toolbox. In addition, the European External Action Service (EEAS)—the EU’s foreign policy arm set up by the Lisbon Treaty—and the European Commission were sending different messages, without much coordination.

Having played such a feeble role at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the EU institutions could not expect to be central protagonists during the UN-backed international peace conference on the future of Syria known as Geneva II—even if that process has not gone very far anyway. Apart from the EU’s positions of principle—the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a ceasefire, and a transitional authority—the EU as such has not been instrumental in any of the key issues linked to the crisis.

There was no EU involvement on the military side, where member states either abstained from initiatives to intervene in the conflict or trailed the United States. The EU made no major effort to channel its assistance across the border into Syria to help displaced persons and had no real interaction with Syrian opposition groups. And the union had only limited formal contact with the UN/Arab League joint special representative for Syria. Why, then, should anyone pay attention to what the EU might have to say?

Throughout the Syrian crisis, the EU has displayed the foreign policy impotence that the Lisbon Treaty engineered it to have. The big three member states—France, Germany, and the UK—have a say, and their foreign ministers have been very visible, while other EU countries watch from the sidelines. Neither the EU foreign policy high representative, the European commissioner for humanitarian assistance, nor the European commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy has had a meaningful role to play in the political game so far. The Syrian crisis tragically illustrates how the EU as a whole has deprived itself of the soft power tools that it used to deploy rather more efficiently than it does today.

It may be argued convincingly that the Syrian crisis is about hard power and that this is not the EU’s turf. But the opposite argument can also be made. Given that the big three member states have, in one way or the other, decided not to use hard power—Germany by excluding itself from foreign operations, Britain by virtue of a vote in the House of Commons against military action, and France by aligning itself with a U.S. decision not to strike Syria—one could maintain that there was a niche for the EU as a whole to play a role and try to influence diplomatic talks.

Based on prior experience, the EU institutions could have proposed ideas early on in several domains. The EU could have offered to contribute to some form of international presence to guarantee a stable ceasefire when feasible. It could also have proposed ideas on a transitional government, which would inevitably have involved a large number of figures from the current government as well as a contingent of credible members of the opposition. That would have been in much the same fashion as the transitional authorities that were created after the fall of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. But such a course of action was blocked early on by the EU’s call for Assad’s departure from power.

Looking ahead, the EU could contribute ideas to shape an emergency plan to gradually restore normalcy in the country when the time comes. That would involve addressing the basic health, food, housing, and education needs of the Syrian population; launching a de-mining and cleanup operation for military scrap after the civil war; and starting a process of civil society dialogue to rebuild the fabric of society at the grassroots level. In all of these fields, the EU has a wealth of experience worldwide and could volunteer ideas, even though the context is an extremely difficult one.

Yet because of the Lisbon Treaty and the way it was implemented, the EU has not done any of these things. The treaty guaranteed the EU’s impotence despite claiming to offer a “more efficient diplomatic mechanism,” a pretense that was complemented by dismal coordination—when not pitiful institutional infighting—between the European Commission and the EEAS. As such, the EU’s institutional reforms have rendered a major disservice to the union, including its largest member states, to the Southern neighborhood, and to the world.

To appreciate how much more efficient and daring, if ill equipped, the EU was before the Lisbon Treaty, one need only remember the Gulf War of 1990–1991. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the EU was able to put together, within exactly four weeks, an emergency aid package to frontline states affected by the conflict, without an EEAS or an aid agency of any sizable dimension. Similarly, toward the end of the war, when some 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds fled toward Turkey and Iran, the EU was able to provide critical humanitarian assistance within days and weeks. That was despite difficult conditions in the rugged far southeast of Turkey and the west of Iran and the lack of a permanent EU diplomatic presence in Tehran.

By contrast, today’s EU failed to use its humanitarian tools as foreign policy instruments in Syria, let alone propose ideas in the political sphere. Similarly, the EU did not come up with a substantial common plan to accommodate Syrian refugees on EU soil for the duration of the crisis.

This calamitous state of affairs is not surprising. The Lisbon Treaty was written on the premise that there should be “less Brussels” in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and that the “noble matters” of diplomacy should be left to experts in Paris, Berlin, and London, while a central bureaucracy—the EEAS—would produce statements and reports. Besides, the theoretical notion that the double hatting of the high representative, who is also a commission vice president, would in and of itself improve coordination among the EU institutions just did not work. On the contrary, the reality was one of disunity and bickering between the commission and the EEAS.

The end result is simple: the Syrian people will remember that, while they were being massacred, tortured, bombarded indiscriminately, or obliged to flee, the EU was making statements from a distance and essentially looking the other way. Without offense to the dedicated EU officials who spent time and energy on the Syrian crisis, their masters’ untold political consensus was that the EU should not be visible.

So far in the Syrian crisis, the EU has been noticeable for its total lack of influence over the political aspects of the conflict. It remains to be seen whether the EU will one day want its diplomatic apparatus to play a role in the negotiation and reconstruction stages. In other words, the test will be whether the EU can act in a way worthy of its economic power and international responsibilities.

In that context, a new issue has arisen following the proclamation by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known as ISIS) on June 29, 2014, of a caliphate that includes large parts of Syria. In the face of this new development, should the EU now resume talks with the Syrian regime? As paradoxical as it may sound given the EU’s earlier positions, this may well turn out to be one inescapable way forward.

Morocco: No Turmoil, Then the EU Creates a Crisis

Contrary to many other countries in the region, Morocco did not go through a phase of acute turmoil. Instead, it went through successive phases of political dialogue and agreements on constitutional and other reforms. With the EU, Morocco continued to manage a traditionally dense relationship, which included financial support, trade in agricultural products, and a fisheries agreement. By the very nature of the situation, the EU devoted less political attention to a country that was obviously not in a state of serious upheaval.

Whether because of benign neglect or because of a blatant lack of coordination between the EEAS and the European Commission, the EU recently found itself in the middle of an acute crisis with Morocco that cropped up almost out of nowhere. Due to an obscure technical decision by the EU on the price-fixing regime for fruits and vegetables in the EU that directly affected Moroccan exports, the entire rural community and hence the political establishment in Morocco were up in arms against the union. There were talks of a new trade war between the two strategic partners. At the same time, or as a result, Morocco has delayed its ratification of the fisheries agreement, creating difficulties for EU, especially Spanish, fishermen.

This is not a new situation, as similar episodes regularly rocked the EU-Morocco relationship in the early 1990s. What is new is that since then, both parties had built a political framework around their economic relationship, making the Moroccan partners believe that the EU had finally understood how economically, socially, and politically important Morocco’s rural world was to its rulers.

This miniature political crisis, which has now thankfully subsided, is a clear demonstration that splitting the EU toolbox between foreign policy and technical instruments has resulted in a conspicuous lack of coordination. In this case, the European Commission felt it was within its competence to make a decision on prices that affected Moroccan agricultural exports to the EU, and it failed to see the massive political implications this would have. Simultaneously, the EEAS did not coordinate carefully enough with the commission. A blatant lack of communication and a narrow vision of each institution’s responsibility resulted in a quite unnecessary crisis and a breach of confidence with a Southern partner.

A Broader Malaise

The three examples of Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco illustrate the disappointing performance of the new EU diplomatic machinery. This is nothing surprising given the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions on institutional arrangements. The treaty separated foreign policy responsibilities from operational issues and indirectly produced an ineffective relationship between the EEAS and the commission. Based on the (flawed) premise that foreign policy is a serious matter that has nothing to do with the “technicalities” managed by the commission, the treaty further led to the conspicuous absence of the high representative in the role of commission vice president and to the EU’s incapacity to generate relevant initiatives combining foreign policy positions with concrete actions on the ground.

That had repercussions for the EU’s ability to deal with the challenges presented by the Arab uprisings. When a country’s transition was self-sustained (as in Tunisia), the EU was more or less able to support it. When the upheaval was chaotic (as in Syria), the EU was not equipped to exert a strong enough influence. When a country managed by itself (as in Morocco), the EU accidentally ended up creating trouble from its own side.

Yet the issue of the EU’s flawed foreign policy architecture is much wider than the specific cases of transition processes in the Arab world. Essentially, the EU’s foreign policy setup has three systemic gaps.

First, the eagerness of EU member state representatives to be omnipresent in the EU’s top-level foreign policy architecture has resulted in an excessive number of redundant positions. The EEAS has ended up with a dense organizational chart and countless special representatives—not to mention the three or four European commissioners responsible for any given region. Each of these officials has been keen to appear “active.” This has led partner countries to wonder, “Who is our real EU interlocutor?” Streamlining is now in order.

Second, EU member states are unwilling to genuinely coordinate their efforts abroad. This can be explained both by petty motives, such as a desire to continue bilateral business with the countries concerned, and by broader political developments, for example a return to bilateralism in foreign policy and a drastic reduction in the EU’s collective role in the world’s diplomatic affairs, despite the union’s claims to have vast global ambitions.

Third, the EU suffers from weak central foreign policy leadership, be it in the EEAS or in the European Commission. This is where member states have been inconsistent (or Machiavellian, depending on one’s viewpoint). With the Lisbon Treaty, EU countries put forward ambitious foreign policy goals and revamped the EU’s institutional structures while simultaneously defeating those goals by appointing weak leaders and scattering the EU’s foreign policy toolbox.

If this situation is to be improved, EU heads of state and government, particularly those of the big three, should acknowledge that strong EU diplomacy is to the benefit of all member states. As national leaders select the next crop of EU decisionmakers during the remaining months of 2014, they should appoint an identifiable and respected foreign policy high representative and a strong commission that they can fully support. In the medium term, the EU should turn its attention to revamping decisionmaking procedures and introducing genuine interinstitutional cooperation.