Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the international challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
That Egypt was going to be the swing state of the Arab Spring is nothing new. It also required to be handled with care, for many geopolitical, demographic, human rights, and security reasons. What has the European Union done? To be fair, it has suspended disbursing promised assistance pending a transfer of power from military to civilian control. The improved coordination mechanisms that the EU has put in place for Tunisia have not been activated for Egypt because of the uncertainty of the country’s transition. But the EU has not been particularly active, beyond a few declarations, in advocating transfer to civilian control, in demanding the abolition of the emergency law, and in openly supporting pluralism and the aims of the revolution that toppled Mubarak. In the EU’s defense, the traditional external power that can influence Egypt—the United States—seems lost. And the EU has always followed suit. But to be sure, the arm wrestling between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood would have not been the preferred scenario for Europe. Will Egypt become another missed opportunity to try doing something different?
In the first place, it is up to the people of North Africa and the Middle East to decide and shape their own political future. Yet, Europe can and should assist. The European Union has an interest in expanding economic prosperity, political rights, and freedom to the other side of the Mediterranean.
Last year, Europeans were surprised by the Arab Spring. European leaders were caught red-handed with their cozy relationships with autocratic rulers in the region: then French Foreign Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, offered Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali French police know-how on riot control, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made initial statements supportive of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech on democracy in the Kuwaiti parliament accompanied by a business delegation that included arms dealers.
Nevertheless, the EU institutions did come up with a joint approach to the changing situation based on incentives (“money, markets, mobility”); the principle of “more for more”; and a determination to engage with civil society and to build “deep democracy”—that is, building respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and an impartial bureaucracy.
Still, the EU remained preoccupied with saving itself and the euro. Thus, foreign policy including the Arab Spring was relegated to second priority. Accordingly, delivery on the three “M’s” has been slow both on money (resources are also drying up in Europe), markets (where traditional European agricultural lobbies were against liberalization), and mobility (reduced because of fear of populist reactions). So far, European leaders have failed to rise to the difficult conceptual challenge of inventing a new long-term relationship with their southern neighbors.
In Istanbul, one recent conference bringing together European officials, Arab activists, and interested Turks illustrated a paradox. The Europeans had plenty of funds and expertise to help Middle Eastern transitions, but were not trusted by Arab revolutionaries, who remembered the support given by European states to their ousted dictators. And while the Arab activists felt greater trust and warmth for Turkey, Ankara had few of the Europeans' toolkits. Clearly, therefore, much more could be gained by both Europe and Turkey if they could present a common face to their common Middle Eastern backyard. Instead, Europe and Turkey are locked in mutually damaging competition, with Turkey’s EU accession stalled and French-Turkish sparring during the Libyan campaign a fresh memory. A new start is needed, and it can only realistically pass through revitalizing Turkey’s EU membership negotiations—a long-term process with no clear end, but whose past reforms and successes are arguably what Arab revolutionaries find most appealing both in Turkey and in Europe’s policies to its Muslim neighbors.
Europe is focused on the euro crisis and finds it difficult to act—as a global player—on the world agenda. This is nothing new. The war in former Yugoslavia, the war in Iraq, tension in Iran, too many issues have seen Europe act strictly following national lines. The so-called Arab Spring is no exception. France’s intervention in Libya was former president Nicolas Sarkozy's last charge, to foster his foreign affairs credentials. Germany was not convinced. Italy remained shy, due to business interests in Libyan oil. The war in Iraq saw England, Spain, and Italy backing former president George W. Bush, but France and Germany, representing the whole European public opinion, dead set against it. Lady Ashton has not been charismatic enough to whip up a common course on the Arab Spring. Europe was effective in monitoring a difficult truce after the Hamas-Israel conflict in 2006, but despite many years of supporting the Palestinians in the West Bank, it has not been seen as a crucial player in the area. No common European defense, no common leadership, voters’ reluctance vis à vis intervention make the EU a nice enough partner, but not credible in the nasty conflicts now brewing in Egypt, Syria, and tomorrow, Iran.
The European Union has responded to the Arab Spring by putting democracy and sustainable development at the forefront of its policy agenda, and reviewing its neighborhood policy accordingly. For this, it should be given credit. Much remains to be done, however. The shift of tectonic plates on its southern shores is historic, and its outcome far from assured. The EU cannot respond to this change alone. Less still can it do so by tweaking the margins of its existing policy instruments through its two mottos “ the three m’s” to be deployed conditionally following the principle of “more for more”.
For a paradigmatic change in the EU’s response that rises to the challenge of the historic change underway, the EU must become genuinely open to receiving the input of local, regional, and extra-regional actors. This would entail a definition of policy goals which responds far more to local demands, the establishment of multilateral policy instruments to complement bilateral policies and would foresee the engagement of regional and extra regional actors (e.g. Turkey, the United States), and the pursuit of policy methods which accounts for local, and indeed at times nationalist sensitivities.
The Union must make good on its quest for effective multilateralism by effectively engaging with others if it is to remain a relevant actor in the neighborhood.
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