Past Event

Europe’s Role in a Changing Middle East and North Africa

On April 19, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center welcomed the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy H.E. Baroness Catherine Ashton for a special policy discussion on “Europe’s Role in a Changing Middle East and North Africa.” Joining Baroness Ashton to debate the future of the EU’s role in the region were Tarek Yousef, founding dean of the Dubai School of Government and Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center. The event was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic and media communities.

Baroness Ashton began the discussion by setting out the broader challenges faced by the EU since she came into office, in the establishment of a coherent foreign policy. She described one of the major challenges as being the creation of a foreign policy service that was able to build on the EU’s economic and development programs, and integrate an “equally strong approach on the political issues” of concern to the EU. She pointed out that from the beginning of her tenure, the most important political issue on the agenda was Europe’s relationship with its neighborhood – for “Europe’s backyard was where it needed to show that it could be effective.”

Speaking about the history of Europe’s neighborhood policy, Ashton said it had been the source of much good work in the past – particularly in coordination with civil society on issues such as human rights, the rule of law, and democracy. She argued however, that given the new realities of the region, it was “not enough,” and had to be built on in an approach that successfully combined politics and economics. This approach should based around “three M’s” – money, mobility and market access – that represent the best of what the EU has to offer its neighbors.

Ashton argued that at a  the financial assistance offered by the EU to “support the growth of civil society” was crucial at a time when groups that previously had little opportunity, were beginning to seek more effective role. In this regard, Ashton referred both to Tunisia and Egypt, but also to Libya where she pointed out that the Transnational Council was calling for the establishment of a robust civil society. She said that in all initiatives, the EU should seek to bring together the public and private sectors, as well as other financial institutions, and that all support should be offered in a spirit of “mutual accountability.” Ashton went on to talk about the need for enhancing mobility between the EU and its neighborhood. She argued that for both the youth of the region – who stand to gain a great deal from the opportunities of education and exchange with Europe – and its businesspeople, “the capacity to move across borders” is fundamental to economic development. Finally, she argued that the EU has an important role to play in increasing the ease of access to European markets – both through opening those markets up and through increasing the ability of small local businesses to access and operate within them.              

Referring to the notion of “deep democracy” Ashton said that in order to ensure that any transition “was a process, not just a moment” it is necessary to embrace a long-term vision. She warned of the dangers of “impatience,” saying that there had to be a balance between “the need to see change, and the need to see it done properly” – through solid processes and institution building. She further stressed that it was critical that the EU’s own planning reflect that commitment, with a framework that would cover the next 20 years. Finally she emphasized the importance of this process being indigenously led – though the EU did have a much to offer, it should be “on invitation, not imposition.”

Tarek Yousef began his remarks with a critique of the EU’s relations with the Southern Mediterranean over the past few decades. He argued that a proliferation of initiatives and agreements – mentioning the Luxembourg Agreement, the Barcelona Process, and the Mediterranean Union – had raised great expectations, but delivered few results. Echoing Ashton’s remarks, however, he argued that their inadequacy stemmed from a “failure to link the economics and the politics at the heart of them.”

Yousef offered two reasons for the importance of this link. He argued firstly that the economic processes and agreements at the heart of these initiatives could not succeed without political processes to “support, encourage and legitimize them.” Secondly, referring in particular to the “fragile and volatile” situations in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Yousef maintained that “failure on the economic side…complicates the transitions politically.” He stated that not enough was currently being done by the West to support the transitions economically, stressing that such support would be critical to reaching a political stability through which the countries of the Southern Mediterranean could “become real partners with Europe.”

Speaking about the current role of the Gulf states, Abdulaziz Sager argued that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was no longer a “conventional, traditional” force, and has demonstrated – particularly in Libya and Yemen – that it is capable of playing a proactive part. On the nature of political systems within the GCC itself, Sager claimed that the absolute monarchs of the Gulf were actually in a privileged position, in terms of their capacity to deliver reform. Referring to what he saw as a “great partnership between the GCC and the EU,” Sager argued that the two organizations should cooperate in providing financial support to countries in transition, and stressed that in its “soft security approach” the EU was an important partner – pointing in particular to what he described as the threat of an “interventionist Iran.”

Following presentations from all speakers, the floor was opened for questions. Moderator Salman Shaikh asked about the conflict between values and interests, referring to the criticism leveled at the EU and other Western powers of being selective in their support for democratic transition in the region. Baroness Ashton responded by arguing that dealing with different countries requires a recourse to a full spectrum of tactics, but that engagement, over disengagement, is almost always the most effective way to create “opportunities to be able to promote, to support, to develop ideas across the world.” 

Asked about the situation in Libya, and whether there was more that the EU could be doing, Yousef argued that the leading coalition powers had not thought through how to address the gap between the political ambitions – ‘regime change’ – and the military objectives – ‘protect civilians’ – of the campaign. He was further critical of a trend he saw taking hold in Washington that views the future of Libya as problem for Europe, to be dealt with (politically and financially) by Europe. Yousef argued that though Europe’s historic and geographic proximity afforded it a crucial role, it cannot act alone given the budgetary and military constraints that it is under.

Ashton added to this by emphasizing the importance of “partnership and the collaboration” with other countries and organizations – the African Union, the Arab League, the GCC – for which the situation in Libya is of “enormous significance.” In terms of the EU’s own role, she stressed that it was principally a humanitarian one, adding that EU was prepared to support the UN militarily with the establishment of humanitarian corridors, should it be asked to do so.

On the question of Europe’s role in the Middle East peace process, Ashton sated that beyond the extensive economic support offered to the Palestinian Authority, the EU is currently pushing for a “strong statement” from the Quartet that would “support and enable President Abbas to come back into the talks with a clear set of parameters.” She emphasized the importance of acting urgently, saying that the PA had in effect “drawn a line in the sand” with its plans to go to the UN in September.


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