The Transatlantic Relationship After the Arab Uprisings: Stronger in North Africa, Shakier in the Middle East?

On May 19, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a long-awaited speech on the Middle East and North Africa. The region has been shaken by the challenging Tunisian and Egyptian transitions, by forceful repressions in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, by civil war and a NATO military intervention in Libya and by an upcoming Palestinian statehood proclamation. Only a few days earlier, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton covered much the same ground during her visit to Washington, which was aimed at strengthening transatlantic cooperation. Given the stakes in North Africa and the stalled peace process, can the U.S. and the EU work together to increase their weight and impact collectively? What are the main convergences and divergences in their approaches? This paper argues that America and Europe, while sharing common objectives, have different priorities concerning support for democratic processes in the region. More importantly, they have significantly distinct readings of the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), which will become an increasingly decisive issue in the coming months.

The same reading of the uprisings in Washington and Brussels

On Friday, May 20, President Obama gave an honest account of the long-standing vital U.S. interests in the Middle East, ranging from countering terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to ensuring Israel’s security and the free flow of trade and fostering the MEPP. For Europe, the stakes in the Middle East are important but less vital, but the stakes in North Africa are essential. North Africa is the European Union’s southern neighborhood-its own backyard. Promoting prosperity and stability in this region has been a foreign policy priority for the transatlantic partnership over the past two decades, especially in response to increasing security concerns of European states, including terrorism and illegal migration. Equally important is the fact that Europe is also the main trading partner for most of these countries.

Even with the long history of engagement and the high stakes, the U.S. and Europe have failed to formulate consistent approaches to explain the links between the promotion of democracy and security interests in the region, letting the latter trump the former whenever they contradict. The Arab uprisings have forced both transatlantic actors to re-think their policies and rationales in attempting to address three dilemmas in particular. First, the uprisings signal the end of Western led top-down models of reform in the Arab world. That political change has to start endogenously and that it should be based on indigenous understandings of democracy is a lesson the U.S. and Europe are slowly learning. The U.S. and the EU operated also under the assumption that promoting democracy in the MENA could only be attempted in weak states (Lebanon, Palestine) where there was no risk of destabilizing important pro-status quo regional players. In these cases, the same normative values were overcome by realpolitik considerations. Betting on weak states as easy targets for democracy promotion policies has hardly proven to be a successful recipe, with pro-Western elites in these states habitually damaged by the close collaboration with U.S. and European counterparts. On the other hand, the complementary assumption, which held that friendly authoritarian regimes would be politically sustainable in the long run-their societies too fragmented and disillusioned to represent any kind of powerful opposition-has been torn into pieces. In many parts of the Arab world, political sustainability will be granted by democratic and inclusive political processes, especially in those states not able to take advantage of oil and gas rents to buy loyalty through public subsidies.

It should be underlined that, despite their deep involvement in the region, neither the U.S. nor the EU saw the Arab revolts coming, but they both welcomed the democratically-inspired changes. They modestly acknowledged their status as mere observers and took time to re-adjust their vision of the region, of where it might go, and how they could help sustain the democratic momentum without jeopardizing their interests. On the declaratory level, for the first time in recent history the U.S. forcefully put Arab peoples-rather than their regimes-at center stage in its policy. This follows the decline of one of many long-standing “Orientalist” assumptions in the West, which held that Arab peoples are content with their leaders even when they are politically and intellectually subjugated by them. The belief that unaccountable and authoritarian pro-Western regimes could represent long-term bastions of stability has also collapsed.

The U.S. and EU’s MENA policies now imply a “reset” on two issues: the kind of democracy to be supported and the new U.S.-EU policy toward the region. Washington and Brussels share the same agenda on these two points, albeit with different emphases. They are putting their weight behind the two transitions, identifying common actions and trying to bring the rest of the international community together to demonstrate a real (especially financial) commitment to these states’ successful recovery. President Obama’s understanding of the kind of democracy the U.S. stands for in the region is a comprehensive one, based on the three pillars of economic opportunities, political reforms, and minority rights. The parallel he made between a prosperous economy in Tunisia and Egypt acting as a democratizing magnet for the rest of the region and the European enlargement in the 1990s to the former Eastern European communist states is illustrative. Washington sees the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian transitions as dependent on significant economic growth based on innovation and accountable and efficient institutions, generating youth employment and a virtuous circle between modernization and democratization. Europe is endorsing a more political approach, emphasizing the need to support the construction of ‘deep democracies’, acknowledging the urgency of favoring economic reconstruction, as signaled by the creation of a European task force for the southern Mediterranean, which is composed by members of the European External Action Service, the European Commission, the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and other international financial institutions. The challenge ahead for an effective European and American engagement in economic development in the MENA will have to focus on helping enhance intra-regional trade and financial relations and overcoming an under-developed economic intra-regionalism.

An increasingly normative Europe

The Arab world perceives the EU as a complacent actor-punching below its weight, contenting itself with minor reforms to the rule of law, moves to liberalize the economy, and technocratic progress, rather than substantial political and economic development. Looking at European policies so far, there is some truth to this perception, and the revised European Neighborhood Policy (currently still under discussion) focuses on political reforms and improving basic political freedoms, but falls short of devising a broad new approach tying together goals and tools within a regional framework.

The discourse in Europe has shifted from procedural understandings of democracy to the promotion of full-fledged ‘deep democracy’ that goes well beyond electoral fetishism. Deep democracy would consist of political systems characterized by the rule of law, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and an independent judiciary. With a reformulation of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) toward the region, the EU is hedging its bets, trying to restore part of its lost credibility for having engaged authoritarian regimes for several decades without having effectively promoted reform. Despite having at its disposal the opportunity to use both positive conditionality (through the ENP) and negative conditionality (through the Barcelona Process), the EU refrained from utilizing these tools, thereby limiting its own ability to positively influence political transformations in its southern neighborhood. The absence of clear-cut democracy and human rights benchmarks further constrained Europe’s ability to tie funding to specific policy objectives.

The enhanced ‘More for More’ logic of the reframed ENP should imply a closer relationship between political progress and funding. However, the continuing absence of benchmarks does not bode well for an effective implementation of the policy. The reference to ‘mutual accountability’ between the EU and third parties-aimed at countering power asymmetries by making the EU accountable-could further diminish conditionality claims. Above all, because it was an outgrowth of the initial Neighborhood Policy aimed at Europe’s Eastern countries, the EU’s southern policy lacks political vision for the region. The southern Mediterranean was added to the ENP by former Commission President Romano Prodi almost as an afterthought. From that vantage point, in the new ENP Communication, we do not see much of a change. The solution of regional conflicts will continue to be dealt with in isolation from bilateral Action Plans, North Africa and the Middle East will continue to suffer from insufficient intra-regional cooperation and, more broadly, there will be no strategy to define the kind of relations the EU wants to develop with North Africa and the Middle East in the medium to long-term. The purely reactive logic, working in the aftermath of a crisis, and doing what the EU does best, i.e. capacity and institution building, without setting a broader political horizon, will hardly be an effective recipe for closer, more comprehensive relations with the EU’s southern neighbors.

Some in Europe are already challenging the whole foundation of the Neighborhood Policy, which gathers sixteen very different countries across Eastern Europe, the Southern Caucasus and the MENA. Despite the fact that the EU has tried to tailor its individual sets of bilateral relations, according to some critics there should be completely different frameworks to deal with the social, economic and political diversity across the southern and eastern region, not one single over-arching framework. A sensible change would be to provide for the differentiation between sub-regional clusters, identifying one approach for the Maghreb, for example, and another for the Mashreq. Within each cluster, cross-case comparisons and the sharing of best practices could become feasible. Within such sub-regional approaches, linkages could be created for specific issues, focusing, for example, on conflict resolution dynamics based on confidence building measures and intra-regional integration schemes to bring together different parts of the European Neighborhood policy.

Transatlantic convergence over North Africa translating into effective coordination

EU-U.S. convergence on approaches to North Africa is further reflected in High Representative Catherine Ashton’s “3 Ms” approach for the future of the region and Europe’s contribution to it, which centers on market access, money and mobility. Market access refers to the need for Europe to open up its market to its southern neighbors in a more consistent way and in accordance with these countries’ needs and readiness. Money refers to the resources needed in the short-to-medium term when transitions are more challenging and instability risks are higher. Lastly, mobility stands for the European Union’s intention to open its doors to more young people and businessmen coming from MENA. And yet, in the first phases of their outreach to MENA, the U.S. and the EU allocated only $2 billion for Tunisia and Egypt, then, at the G8 meeting in Deauville on May 26, an additional $20 billion was pledged. There was, however, no specification of where the money would come from. In the meantime, regional stakeholders will not hold their breath: Saudi Arabia alone has pledged $4 billion in aid to Egypt. If this will come with strings attached, they will likely differ from European political conditionality. Most of the U.S. and European activity is concentrated on increasing the role of international financial institutions that are expected to step in with long-term loans: the World Bank, the IMF, the European Bank of Investment (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). However, that will hardly be enough to grant these countries smooth economic transitions, which is widely recognized as the key to their future prospects of political stabilization. Both the U.S. and Europe have underscored that the loans are focused on trade and investments more so than on aid and assistance, and that these loans will be tied to the democratic reforms the two countries in transition are expected to undertake. The EBRD, which was created at the end of the cold war to help the transition of communist countries to developed market economies, will extend its mandate to grant aid to MENA countries committed to the core principles of democracy, political pluralism and the market economy.

The emerging U.S. policy toward the region will include a much stronger engagement with local civil society organizations (CSOs), to include even those which “speak uncomfortable truths”. This position is in line with President Obama’s call to stand on the side of individuals rather than regimes. Europe will also increase its emphasis on working with local CSOs. In that respect, neither Washington nor Brussels has addressed the core dilemma they both will increasingly face: will they engage anti-Western political and civil society actors if they renounce the use of violence? In his Cairo speech, President Obama said the U.S. would respect all democratically-elected governments committed to the respect of human rights and equality and which reject the use of violence, but these words will be tested.

What stands out from these overlapping but not identical U.S. and EU conceptions of democracy is the preeminence each attributes to either economic or political progress. While both the U.S. and Europe deem these two dimensions as intertwined and mutually reinforcing, Washington puts a premium on economics, while Europe’s rhetoric focuses on politics. The transatlantic convergence is more apparent however on the ground. Since the uprisings, the U.S. and Europe have been collaborating on a practical and day-to-day level, facilitating the transitional phase through the direct transfer of know-how and coordination of joint programs. Europe has been particularly active in Tunisia, where Brussels has sent an electoral team in preparation for the July elections. Tunisia represents the success story Europe needs to boost its normative claims in the region.

The elephant in the room in transatlantic discourses: recalcitrant authoritarian states

Washington and Brussels have not consistently condemned all those Arab states unwilling to undertake political reforms but whose allegiance has served the West for decades to ensure regional stability, peace with Israel, and flows of trade and oil. Even if pro-status quo rulers, currently stepping up the repression of their oppositions across the Middle East and the Gulf, are considered to be on life support, this has not implied a fundamental re-thinking of how U.S. and European strategies need to change. Both seem intent on preserving relations with some of their key regional authoritarian allies, especially the Gulf monarchies. Neither the U.S. nor Europe has drawn the conclusion that a consistent regional foreign policy in respect to dealing with autocrats is now required: Obama never mentioned Saudi Arabia in his speech, and Catherine Ashton and other European statesmen are reformulating EU policy by targeting only selected countries in MENA outside the Gulf. Political and institutional relations between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), encompassing the six Gulf states and, more recently, Jordan and Morocco, remain underdeveloped, even though economic cooperation has increased in the past decade. On the other hand, the intense economic and military relations the U.S. enjoys with the GCC have spared these states from consistent pressure from Washington to pursue political reform.

However, even if there are no shifts in U.S. and EU foreign policy toward the Gulf monarchies, the changed discourse in Washington and Brussels-linking further aid and investment to regional states’ commitments to embark on a path of gradual but continuing reforms-will have an impact in the Persian Gulf too. Given its military and security commitments in the Gulf, U.S. leverage is historically much more significant there than Europe’s, but it has been diminished by the Arab uprisings. By siding with Arab peoples rather than with their regimes, and having supported democratic movements in overthrowing Arab autocrats, Washington’s influence and credibility as an ally has decreased among Gulf leaders. The U.S. and Europe now have two options to act normatively: either to exert influence upon those regimes-pushing for the introduction of gradual but real reforms-or to adopt a more “balanced” approach that deals with autocrats as regional powers but not as allies.

Divisions over the proclamation of a Palestinian state will weaken the U.S. and Europe

Based on a preliminary analysis, the U.S. and Europe have mostly agreed on how to respond to the uprisings and their aftermath in North Africa, although they have significant disagreements on how to move the Middle East Peace Process forward. If it comes to a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state at the UN Security Council, the U.S. will veto it, and will either vote against or abstain at the UN General Assembly. In doing so, the U.S. will isolate itself, polarize many of its European allies and lose further credibility in the Arab world. President Obama has depicted the proclamation of a Palestinian state at the UN as an act detrimental to “Israel’s legitimacy”. While President Obama has stated that “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the UN will not create an independent state”, most European countries (including France, Britain, Spain and Norway, to date) will recognize a Palestinian state, with Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy currently opposing this move. In order to avoid this scenario, European diplomacy is actively working behind the scenes to evade both intra-EU splits and a transatlantic rift, by preparing a possible alternative resolution to present at UNGA which might be accepted by both Israelis and Palestinians.

After having recognized the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations (with land swaps), in his address at AIPAC on May 22, 2011, President Obama reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to Israel’s sense of security as the first and foremost priority. At AIPAC, the President made clear that the U.S. would never impose the 1967 borders condition on Israel, but the provision would be a starting point for negotiations and open to significant changes under the guise of “land swaps”. In both his May 19 Mideast speech and at AIPAC, Obama ignored the three issues deemed essential by the Palestinians: the right of return of refugees, halting the construction of settlements and accepting East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital. In contrast, in the President’s 2009 Cairo Speech, these two latter issues were at least mentioned as important aspects to be included in a future agreement. Europe, which has welcomed the explicit mention of the borders’ parameters, has held a consistent and forceful position on both issues, criticizing settlements and recognizing East Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.

By not laying out a path for the resumption of talks or advancing comprehensive parameters, the President seemed intent to place the ball in the Israeli and Palestinian courts. He avoided asking Israel for a moratorium on further settlement construction, further ease of the Gaza blockade, or disbursement of seized tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. Significantly, the Quartet has not met in the past few months and the U.S. envoy resigned a few days before the speech by the President. The Quartet, already a half-hearted exercise in multilateral diplomacy poised by an internal imbalance of power in favor of the United States, looks weaker by the day and seems to be heading toward demise without much regret. This diplomatic format will likely not survive a Palestinian state reached in absence of peace negotiations.

President Obama defended the validity of the Quartet’s three principles (renouncing violence, accepting the legitimacy of Israel’s existence and accepting all previous agreements) as pre-conditions for negotiations, depicting the intra-Palestinian reconciliation as an obstacle to peace. On this issue, the Europeans have favored a different view, accepting the inclusion of Hamas as the only way to build a representative negotiating team able to speak for all Palestinians.

The U.S., as well as Europe, seems to realize that regional and international constraints will increasingly exert pressure on Israel to make concessions and work for peace. President Obama has expressed the need to embark on a negotiating path sooner rather than later. However, he has refrained from indicating both a timeline and a new mechanism for negotiations, and will not accept leaving it to France or convening a conference with the two parties.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue will-after decades of transatlantic cooperation-start to distance most of Europe from the U.S., with the former siding with the international community and the latter sharing Israel’s increasing geopolitical isolation. With little evident U.S.-Israeli political will to push the peace process forward, and after more than forty years of direct involvement in the MEPP, many in Europe are frustrated by the lack of consistent effort in moving things forward. Unless the international community throws its weight behind convincing the Israeli leadership and public that time is now working against them, there is little prospect for re-starting negotiations. In other words, the current Israeli preference for waiting to approach the Palestinians until the Arab dust settles may be dangerously misplaced.

If the broad U.S. and European political interests in the Middle East revolve around stability, reforms and peace, both Europe and America now face a double dilemma: constructing a new narrative to explain how reforms will lead to greater stability for change-resistant regional regimes, and linking the MEPP to these broader considerations. The first narrative has been tentatively put forward by both President Obama and Catherine Ashton. Though still not substantiated on the ground, the U.S. and EU’s decisive support for the transitions in North Africa has signaled a new era in normative politics. To be truly normative, however, the MEPP must also be tackled simultaneously. So far the MEPP has been dealt with in isolation from regional political considerations and without a clear sense of urgency. The clock started to tick on January 25, 2011 for all regimes in the Middle East and North Africa and for their supporters. It also started to tick for Israel, which must now reorient itself and find a new place in an increasingly multipolar Middle East, where the influence of the outside powers that have traditionally supported it are greatly diminished.