Today, the EU’s response to the Arab Spring of 2010–12 is deemed to have been one of the great missed opportunities in the Union’s history. Analysts wonder whether these fledgling democratic movements could have avoided meltdown if only the EU had followed through on its rhetoric. But it misses the point to simply ask what would have happened if the EU had implemented its program of offering the “three Ms” to Arab countries (market access, mobility, and money) more vigorously. It is better to draw practical lessons than merely lament lost opportunities.

The response to the #ArabSpring is deemed to be one of the EU’s great missed opportunities.
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EU integration is typically driven by a technocratic “ratchet” mechanism. By this model, a successful initiative in one field has a positive impact (or “spillover”) on action in another. In terms of EU external affairs, however, the ratchet mechanism is far more political. This is an aspirational policy where, through high-level international commitments and conditionality mechanisms, the EU forces itself to take a certain course. It is part of EU external policy for the Union to overshoot in terms of its rhetoric and then scramble to provide effective policy, since this would require internal reforms within the Union that are often difficult to reach, in particular under time pressure.

In this context, we must consider not only whether the support promised by the EU would have helped bring about a transformation in Arab countries but also whether the internal reforms the EU would have had to envisage for itself would have been helpful for the “transforming” neighbors – or even realistic.

The EU’s Three Ms

In March 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 European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The central pillars of the new policy, far exceeding the classic EU approach to foreign aid, were designed to provide these societies in turmoil not just with material backing but also with politically tailored support.

In retrospect it is clear that the EU did not meet 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 yet again missing a strategic opportunity to act as a forceful agent of change. So, what if the Union had opened its markets for competitive products from the southern Mediterranean, lifted its severe restrictions on refugees and immigrants from the region, and disbursed substantial amounts of money to influence the developments in those places?

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 market 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 providing stimulus to these emerging 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 toward economic openness, deregulating their own systems and unleashing market forces? Or would market exposure perhaps have had a detrimental effect?

While the effect of the first M – Money – on the Arab Spring is far from clear, the internal effects of such an expenditure on the EU would have been enormous. The EU would have been obliged to compensate European farmers and manufacturers with very large sums indeed. The impact on the budget negotiations for the Multiannual Financial Framework (the EU’s budget for the period 2014–20) would have been profound. Similarly profound would have been the impact on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which would 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, it is hard to access the impact that such a policy would have had on the countries in question. Could a country like Egypt have “exported” a significant number of its unemployed young people and hereby relieve some of the pressures on its own labor market? Would it not have resulted in a brain drain, depriving Egypt of the educated experts it so desperately needs to build a modern state and economy? Would these immigrants have subsequently returned to their home countries, bringing with them a reverse knowledge transfer? Or would migratory flows from sub-Saharan Africa have increased, creating veritable “refugee tourism” to Europe? If none of these scenarios sounds implausible, none of them were certain either.

Once again, the impact of the second M – mobility – on Europe itself is much easier to gauge. We would have immediately seen a bust-up over the actual numbers of people allowed in, to say nothing of squabbling over national quotas. (How many from each country? How many to which European country?).At present, the EU’s only real area of competency relates to issuing short-term visas.Discussions over free movement, work permits, access to welfare, and the recognition of diplomas would have been extensive and heated, intensified by the 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, European leaders would have been forced not only to create improvised immigration programs but also to push through 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; for these would be the places toward which the majority of new immigrants would likely gravitate.

Finally, money

The impact that large-scale EU spending would have had in the recipient countries is unclear. It seems highly likely that the political elites, regardless of their affiliation, would have spent the cash primarily on consolidating their power base (that is, by keeping the small, informal power coalitions that keep them in office contented). As for the EU, if it had actually intended to follow through on its spending agenda, the following questions would have been absolutely unavoidable: What do we actually want to buy? How much money is required? Who is in charge of spending it? Under intense political pressure to get value for money, a profound strategic debate would have ensued in Europe on the short- and long-term goals of strategic investment– for the first time ever and under very trying circumstances.

A large spending program would also have required deep coordination between the EU’s institutions and its 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. Channeling the funds to recipient countries would ultimately have required an entirely new mechanism. 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 but one that would not have been free of friction. 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 in terms of persuading EU countries to “buy in” to a more unified European foreign policy.

Would the geopolitical nature of such an exercise have made it necessary to forgo the high principles of conditionality and values-based foreign policy? This is a major question. Conditionality has sometimes been blamed for turning grand strategic action into mere bookkeeping. Much would have depended on whether the goal of the spending spree was simply to create stability or, more ambitiously, to create something lasting, long-term, and sustainable. In any case, the ready flow of EU cash would have carried with it a strong risk of merely encouraging corruption on a grand scale in the recipient countries – as is so often the case when spending takes place in a rushed, heavy-handed way.

Unclear Political Impact

On balance, it is highly unlikely that a more robust implementation of the EU’s three Ms policy in the region would have done much to change the domestic dynamics in the Arab world that prevailed in the past three years. Political and social fault lines are too deeply embedded in these societies, and outside players like the EU could not have affected – and indeed, cannot affect – them easily. With or without EU money, the Muslim Brotherhood would have still dominated the political scene in Egypt, and the suppression of that organization by the military 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 moreover possible that many of the new players in the region would have rejected Western help and Western money for fear of being called 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 reality: unsynchronized European and American reactions to the Arab Spring. At the same time, a visibly coordinated effort between the EU and the US could have intensified the feeling in the Arab World that, once again, the region was destined to become a playing field for external players. Europe’s intensified engagement, moreover, could also have triggered a response by other heavily invested players in the region, namely Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. 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.

The transformative power of EU foreign policy must never be underestimated.
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Ironically, the three Ms would probably have had the strongest impact in Europe itself. Their implementation would have massively influenced the way EU foreign policy is planned and conducted, would have shaped EU development and neighborhood policies, and would have had an important impact both 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 by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.