The Arab Spring and Europaralysis in the Levant and the Gulf

March 1, 2012

Europe has never had a comprehensive approach towards the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Arab Awakening has not significantly altered the calculations behind the existing policy fragmentation.

Despite framing political and economic relations with MENA through collective diplomatic frameworks, either multilateral (such as the 1995 Barcelona process) or bilateral (as the European Neighbourhood Policy), the Union has never developed a fully-fledged strategy of engagement with the region, but it has fostered partially complementary and partially mutually exclusive policy goals (such as the simultaneous promotion of democracy and security).

The lack of a comprehensive vision is a consequence of at least three factors: the persistence of political and economic post-colonial interests by many big European states, the weakness of the European External Actions Service, -still not fully operational and understaffed-and the lack of leadership at the European level able to offer strategies if not grand visions of what Europe could and should become for its neighbourhood, and viceversa.

Europe has dealt with the MENA region tacitly endorsing a threefold sub-regional division between North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf, without however clearly spelling out the different goals and rationales of its actions and inactions.

Europe has looked at North Africa through the prism of three geopolitical concerns: domestic political stability, security for Europe and energy security. The three North African countries who have been turned upside down by the 2011 revolts, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, perfectly represent the mixture and interplay among these various concerns. Despite that, in all three cases, Brussels has successfully managed to reach something more than a common enominator on how to respond to the uprisings, from diplomatic openings to offers of increased bilateral cooperation through Advanced status recognition, to the proposal of enhanced partnerships. Europe has however failed to deliver what it has pledged in terms of direct and indirect financial help, as well as effectively exerting pressure on European member states on increased mobility and market access, two crucial issues for southern Mediterranean countries. That would represent a tangible offer, beyond the usual diplomatic symbolic carrots. Europe has also failed to come clean on its biased democracy promotion track record, characterised by ad hoc support of anti-regime political forces in the region. Some credit however goes to the capacity of the EU to find a common ground among European stakeholders, substantially helping them to get their acts together. That was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and only to a lesser extent, with regard to Libya.
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