Europe’s attention to its Southern flank is absorbed by cascading disaster. In the face of war in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the migration crisis, and the proliferation of terrorism, Europe’s all-absorbing goal is stability, which in most cases means preventing bad things from getting worse. But what about those places that have garnered less attention by remaining stable? Does Europe still have a positive goal for its Southern flank?

The EU global strategy launched by the union’s foreign policy high representative, Federica Mogherini, in June 2016 does not offer much in this regard except that it aims to build “resilience,” defined as “the ability of states and societies to reform, thus withstanding and recovering from internal and external crises.” Yet little of this is visible in current European policies, which are driven largely by the goal of containing security spillover from Middle Eastern conflicts. Alongside its important crisis management, however, Europe needs to think much more boldly in terms of what it can do differently to preempt violent turmoil in the first place.

Kristina Kausch
Kristina Kausch is a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Europe’s past efforts to support sustainable forms of stability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have often been thwarted by a perceived trade-off of tolerating partners’ domestic stasis for the sake of regional cooperation. Resilient polities—those able to weather crises through their openness to reform—are more likely to produce predictable partners and are less at risk of coups or popular uprisings. The regional policies of such states are not driven by the erratic quest for regime survival that lies at the heart of many conflicts flaring in the Middle East today. By linking up domestic resilience with regional commitment, Europe must invest much more heavily in countries like Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan. Over time, they could become resilient anchors for Europe’s relations with the Arab world and Africa.

Investment in resilient anchors could take the form of the EU doing what it already does but in a more courageous way and with a much larger scope, for example a quantum leap to give these countries access to the EU’s single market. At the same time, Europe’s future relations with the Mediterranean will depend largely on the way in which the EU resolves its integration crisis laid bare by Britain’s vote in June 2016 to leave the union. By tying a broader range of international partners functionally and institutionally to Europe, the emergent multilayer EU has an opportunity to solve the long-standing riddle of how to anchor European influence in the Southern neighborhood.

The Benefit of Anchors

Resilient anchors should complement, not replace, traditional alliances. The 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy described “anchors for regional engagement” as “countries with major impact on their neighborhood [that] require focused attention.” Crises tend to dictate partners, and Europe mostly has little choice but to rely on alliances with static regimes that can exert influence on a certain dossier. That said, determining priority alliances on the basis of regional influence in a way that is largely disconnected from the ally’s domestic resilience has amply proved an unwise investment. The 2011 uprisings in the MENA region have provided abundant evidence that regimes that feed off domestic stasis are unfit to constitute the main pillars of Europe’s Middle Eastern engagement. Propping up such regimes for the sake of their regional influence may seem like a shortcut to solving policy impasses today, but it is prone to creating bigger problems tomorrow by perpetuating instability and conflict. While picking out the wormy fruit, therefore, Europe needs to sow more resistant seeds of partnership by helping build regional players that are willing and able to work with Europe toward a sustainable future.

Such an investment would hold numerous strategic benefits for Europe. In a region of turmoil, islands of sustainable stability would be highly valued in and of themselves. The diminishing negative spillover into the neighborhood and Europe would be welcome. The positive reverberations that the inspiration of a genuine Arab democracy such as Tunisia would have across the Middle East are significant both on the symbolic level (to safeguard one success from the 2011 Arab uprisings and belie Arab exceptionalism) and on the practical level (as neighbors watch Tunisia reap the fruits of democratic development).

Furthermore, lasting domestic stability would likely pave the way for more constructive regional engagement. With the right positioning, smaller states with limited geopolitical capital can play important regional roles. In this sense, resilient societies could become valuable assets as regional partners for Europe. And states that are domestically resilient are more likely to constructively explore opportunities in their neighborhoods through cooperative regional orders.

Arguably, the pool of choices for such investment is limited. The future orientation of Turkey, until recently Europe’s key Middle Eastern anchor hope, is wide open. At the same time, the fading notion of Turkey as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East enhances the importance of developing other constructive partnerships in the region. Israel’s antagonistic relations with most of the Arab world cancel out any meaningful role as a regional shaper. By contrast, Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan, while no first-tier regional players, have been held up in EU policy circles as the most promising Southern partners in terms of their ability to reform.

Europe and the Hopeful Three

As one EU diplomat put it to this author, Jordan, Morocco, and, more recently, Tunisia have been viewed in the EU as the “hopeful three” of EU-Mediterranean relations, as reflected in the density of their respective relationships with Europe. Aside from domestic resilience and the potential for regional influence, prospective anchors should have a strong interest in closeness with the EU that gives the union some shaping leverage.

Neither Tunisia, Morocco, nor Jordan will end the war in Syria, defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or pacify Libya. Yet due to these countries’ specific features—including reliance on EU aid, trade, and political support with limited alternatives—this is where close partnerships with the EU aimed at gradual integration remain attractive. Small in geographical size, all three countries are relatively stable and have comparatively liberal political systems; depend on aid due to a lack of domestic resources; run pragmatic foreign policies; and maintain a pro-Western strategic orientation. All three are major EU aid recipients and have advanced status in their relations with the EU. The fact that none of them is a regional heavyweight may not immediately commend them as regional partners, but it also makes Tunisia and Morocco in particular less attractive (and hence less vulnerable) to foreign interventions and proxy games.

Tunisia, the Political Vanguard

Despite the many nuances and setbacks of its fragile transition to democracy since 2011, Tunisia is the undisputed political vanguard of the Arab world. Rated “free” by Freedom House, Tunisia is the only MENA country moving toward state and societal resilience. Yet the path keeps getting stonier as the only Arab democracy is embattled from within and without by stagnant reforms, unaddressed political and socioeconomic challenges, and a deteriorating security environment. With an estimated 6,000 militants as of October 2015, Tunisia is the origin of by far the most foreigners fighting alongside the Islamic State in Syria. A recent Carnegie paper described how “patterns of overpromising and underdelivering” from both Tunisian leaders and foreigners since 2011 have taken their toll on people’s trust in their government and in foreign donors.

Tunisia’s traditionally low-profile role in the Middle East and North Africa is slowly starting to change. Following the country’s alignment under the 2012–2013 leadership of Ennahda with then Islamist-led Egypt and Turkey, Tunisia is now likely to seek a more reconciliatory position with all its neighbors in a region marked by polarization. Tunis, despite its busy domestic transition agenda, has little choice but to take an interest in regional matters that put its domestic stability in danger, most particularly the civil war in Libya.

Tunisia’s positive actions on Libya—including hosting meetings, ensuring relatively open borders, welcoming refugees—provide a glimpse of the potential value of a democratic ally in the Maghreb. A comparatively blank sheet in terms of regional policy, Tunisia lacks the heavy political baggage of Algeria and Morocco and could be well placed to help unlock stalled trans-Maghreb cooperation.

European policies toward Tunisia, however, lack the scope, diplomatic attention, and political courage that an outstanding case such as Tunisia requires. EU relations with the country rest on the usual combination of aid, political cooperation, and gradual market access. Europeans stress Tunisia’s strong symbolic value but do not usually envisage a broader regional role for Tunis. Not trumpeting the message of the Tunisian poster child too much is considered key to avoid feeding extremist discourse or triggering Arab countries’ envy through selective praise and attention.

EU member states agree that Tunisia deserves more attention but are reluctant to commit. Brussels values the smooth and open dialogue with Tunis that contrasts with difficult relations elsewhere in the region. Aside from financial assistance, Tunisians want more attention commensurate with the significance of their transition, but even easy symbolic concessions such as high-level visits are brushed off by top EU officials, who, one diplomat told this author, say the EU “can’t have summits with everyone.”

In terms of market access, as Tunisian researcher Walid Haddouk has pointed out, studies show no clear evidence of the benefits of current free-trade schemes to Tunisian society, and access to the EU market is “widely seen as [having been] captured by well-connected people.” Ongoing negotiations between Brussels and Tunis to create a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area are a risky gamble for Tunisia as the asymmetrical deal could further exacerbate Tunisia’s socioeconomic problems.

But Tunisian demands for the EU to open up to agrarian products and services to help them become more resilient, not less, remain largely unanswered. A provision to temporarily raise the quota of Tunisian olive oil imported into the EU in 2016–2017 met with significant resistance in the European Parliament and some olive-producing EU member states, despite minimal damage to EU producers and limited capacities of Tunisian producers to fulfill the quota. Making such a measure permanent, and eventually extending it to other sectors, would make a big difference to Tunisia at comparatively little cost to the EU.

Morocco, an African Power

Morocco is often portrayed by analysts, journalists, and officials as the Arab country best at keeping stability amid regional turmoil. Others maintain that this stability is fragile as the regime has not satisfied but contained public discontent through a combination of subtle repression, targeted political opening, and smart public relations.

A look at Morocco’s development indicators, however, provides evidence of a stalled reform process amid deteriorating political conditions. Constitutional changes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring served to dilute rather than deliver meaningful change. Foreign fighter numbers—estimated at 1,200 as of October 2015—belie the Moroccan government’s branding as a successful promoter of deradicalization. Morocco prides itself on retaining the only democratically elected Islamist government, but while the palace keeps pulling the strings, the elected government is blamed for day-to-day policymaking.

Rabat has responded to vocal dissent over the past few years with an increasingly harsh crackdown on journalists and other critical voices, earning Morocco a “partly free” rating from Freedom House in 2016 with a downward trend indicator. Morocco looks stable, although the recent move from subtle to open repression may pave the way for future protests.

Despite its remote location, Morocco entertains larger regional ambitions. However, unlike Jordan, which invests a lot in major regional dossiers, Morocco’s regional ambition focuses more on narrower national interests such as the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Over the last decade, Morocco has been purposefully expanding its role as an African power, including by conducting religious diplomacy and expanding commercial ties with countries to the south. Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara remains a major obstacle to a broader regional role for Rabat. The country’s bid in 2016 to rejoin the African Union (AU) after a thirty-two-year absence has been complicated by its nonrecognition of AU member Western Sahara.

Although Rabat has been demonstratively seeking to broaden its international relations portfolio with Russia and the Gulf, most of Morocco’s commercial exchanges are with the EU, and France remains its dominant trade partner, creditor, and foreign investor.

Morocco was the first Southern Mediterranean country to obtain advanced status in its relations with the EU, in 2008, and is the first recipient of European Neighborhood Policy funds. Moroccan journalist and researcher Aboubakr Jamaï has argued that Europeans value the monarchy’s ability to “[find] a path between stagnation and disruption,” but that Europe’s only faintly conditioned financial and political support “might have removed the incentive for reforms.” The EU’s recent move to no longer make its assistance systematically conditional on domestic change, while sensible in other cases, may well be detrimental to Morocco’s reform process.

Since 2011, the relative importance of Morocco as an ally to Europe has risen, and conversely, Europe’s willingness to exert pressure on the palace has decreased. Morocco’s cooperation on security and migration, its well-nurtured image as a political reformer, and its comparative stability in a region of turmoil have largely silenced whatever systematic pressure there was from Europe before the Arab uprisings.

In early 2016, Morocco temporarily froze ties with the EU following a European Court of Justice decision to invalidate an EU-Moroccan fisheries agreement for including Western Sahara. The European Council appealed against the judgment, and in court hearings, EU representatives visibly struggled to reconcile EU positions on human rights and Western Sahara with their desire to appease Rabat. Moroccan counterparts, an EU official told this author, “do not accept that there is a distinction between European courts and EU institutions and that we have no influence over court decisions.” Aside from illustrating the changing balance of power between Brussels and Rabat, the affair painfully displays the limits of close partnership with an authoritarian partner that does not respect the rule of law.

Jordan, a Fragile Squire

A small, resource-poor monarchy dependent on external aid and militarily weak, Jordan has carved out a niche as a helpful pragmatist in the Levant. However, Jordan’s regional success contrasts with domestic stasis. In 2011, Jordan was downgraded by Freedom House to “not free.” As in Morocco, Jordanian protesters in 2011 fell short of demanding the fall of the monarchy; constitutional and legal reforms retained meaningful power in the king’s hands, while demands for systemic reform, pushed for by a weak, fractured opposition, remained unaddressed.

Today, the country’s reform urge is on hold. Jordanian society is replete with dissatisfaction about the state of the economy and apathy over political stasis. By September 2015, an estimated 2,000 Jordanians had gone to fight for the Islamic State. Yet five years after the Arab Spring, people’s worries about Jordan’s regional security seem to trump concerns for systemic political reform. Jordan was hosting almost 690,000 refugees and asylum seekers by the end of 2015, increasing the country’s population by 10 percent, with an estimated cost of $4.2 billion between 2011 and 2016. Although international aid has absorbed much of this shock for the time being, how Jordan will maintain national cohesion over time remains uncertain. Problematically, the refugee challenge makes meaningful reform in Jordan simultaneously more urgent and more unlikely, increasing the odds of implosion.

Abroad, Jordan’s location in the Levant has made the country vulnerable to the interventions of powerful regional players; but at the same time, this trait has been King Abdullah II’s greatest geopolitical asset. Long before the Syrian exodus, Jordan had successfully fended off pressures for systemic reforms on the grounds of regional instability. In the West, Amman enjoys a reputation of being open and helpful and is praised for its constructive role in the UN Security Council, its engagement in Africa and the Western Balkans, and its quiet but cordial relations with Israel. In addition to hosting the lion’s share of refugees fleeing the war in Syria, Jordan has reliably supported the fight against the Islamic State, a contribution that has been appreciated in Europe.

The United States is the provider of Jordan’s main income, trading rents for political pragmatism. However, this trade-off is coming under stress in the face of Jordan’s domestic troubles, increasing regional polarization, and the unpredictable war in Syria. The EU retains leverage as Jordan’s second aid donor after the United States and has significantly stepped up its assistance to help Jordan cope with the refugee crisis. The EU prioritizes Jordan’s stability and cooperative regional role over domestic reform and seeks to help Jordan decrease its vulnerability to regional turmoil. Although Europeans believe the Hashemite monarchy remains the popular force of national cohesion, one EU diplomat acknowledged to this author a creeping sense that Jordan may be “falsely stable.”

Since refugees have become Europe’s top concern in the Mediterranean, EU-Jordanian relations have been increasingly focused on migration. Yet Amman, keen for ties not to be reduced to this issue alone, seeks bolder European commitment in investment, market access, jobs, macroeconomic stability, security, and counterterrorism cooperation. A preferential trade scheme under negotiation with the EU would lift export tariffs for a number of Jordanian products, but like Rabat and Tunis, Amman is keen on free trade if it is able to strike a deal that will allow its businesses to remain competitive. Despite its second-tier role behind Washington, Europe’s commitments in Jordan suggest that it still underestimates the destabilization potential the mass influx has brought to an already-fragile society.

Flexible Union and the Neighborhood Riddle

Europe’s Southern neighborhood has been the Achilles’ heel of EU foreign policy. Over the past two decades, analysts have proposed countless combinations of aid allocations, market access, mobility, and political cooperation schemes. Instead of bold moves that could make a difference in Southern partner countries, however, numerous lame reshuffles of the same parameters have failed to produce the desired quantum leap in Europe’s Mediterranean influence. The EU’s unwillingness to use any of these instruments to their fullest potential has kept their impact tame.

Yet an unwanted opportunity might come to the rescue. Brexit has triggered an inevitable debate on a fundamental overhaul of EU integration. Popular revolts within and beyond Europe have shown the danger of governments ignoring popular discontent. As the EU faces increasing difficulties of framing relations with states and societies in terms of rigid one-size-fits-all membership, calls have grown stronger for the union to devise more malleable forms of structured cooperation that envisage flexible integration—not as a last-resort dispute settlement mechanism but as the EU’s chief organizing principle. In the midst of EU leaders’ debates on how to “relaunch Europe from the bottom up,” in the words of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, flexible union has emerged as a key element of EU reform.

New ways of framing relations between EU members and key partners will need to reinvent the EU as an innovative cooperative regional order that sees “both multiplicity and unity as its end point,” to quote political analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter. In particular, a multilayer EU that allows the union to keep important partners involved on a mutually beneficial basis while renewing the attractiveness and legitimacy of the EU as a regional integration mechanism would also open avenues to solve the long-standing riddle of what to do with neighboring countries that are not eligible for membership. Reforming the EU from a membership-only scheme into a set of flexible opt-in policy communities, for example, would allow the union to bring in countries like Tunisia or Morocco as strategic partners in an attractive fashion short of membership. Integration in different fields could be negotiated on a functional level without the disruptive effects of the current in-or-out logic.

Conclusion

For Europeans looking across the Mediterranean today, the limits of fragile anchors are as obvious as the potential benefits of resilience. Europe has been visibly struggling to adapt to the post-2011 panorama. The special status bestowed on promising partners has been halfhearted and falls short of the bold political and economic investment in these countries that a resilient anchor would require. This is the EU’s own doing: by holding back incentives, the union is sitting on a dormant potential for leverage.

If the EU is serious about wanting to build the kind of resilience that envisages healthy sustainability in government, state institutions, and society as the basis for a stable neighborhood, it needs to make sure its actions contribute to resilience at all three of these levels, equally and simultaneously. Tunisia is where the EU could easily do more, including by complying with financial commitments made after the Tunisian Revolution; by explicitly raising Tunisia’s political profile; and by dropping agricultural protectionism, as full market access could become a game changer for the country at a comparatively small price to Europe. Morocco’s downward trend might be reversed by timely and decisive EU investment coupled to systemic reform. By multiplying efforts to help Jordan shoulder the refugee challenge, Europe may lay the groundwork for a healthier partnership in the future.

The far-reaching debates on EU reform are an opportunity that goes beyond the union’s external borders. Europeans must seize the current momentum for reform to relaunch an updated EU to defend its long-standing reputation as an innovative cooperative regional order. By its nature, such an order must not treat adjoining regions as outsiders but offer flexible options for neighbors to cooperate on a fluid, nondisruptive basis. Building resilient anchors in the Southern Mediterranean by means of flexible sectoral cooperation could be the bold step that makes all the difference.

Kristina Kausch is a senior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She was a nonresident associate at Carnegie Europe from January to August 2016.