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Restructuring EU-MENA Relations in the wake of the Arab Revolts: A Critical Perspective from the South

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:31

Tamirace FakhouryBy Tamirace Fakhoury, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences, Lebanese American University, Beirut

Much ink has been spilled on assessing co-operation patterns between the European Union and the Middle Eastern and North African Countries (MENA). Seventeen years after the launch of the Barcelona Process, consensus prevails that the track record remains mixed. The joint policy frameworks of the European Mediterranean partnership (EMP) and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) have given rise to a wide spectrum of policy instruments in various domains, notably migration governance, development aid, and democracy assistance. These endeavours notwithstanding, various obstacles have prevented convergence in policy discourses and processes across both shores of the Mediterranean.

On the one hand, a long history of dissension at the heart of Arab regionalist discourses since the 1950s has impeded the emergence of a common Arab understanding of what a ‘Euro-Arab partnership’ means and entails. Further, structural setbacks in the Arab world – such as the derailed Arab-Israeli process, lingering conflicts, and the practices of authoritarian regimes that have so far prevailed – have obstructed the formation of an ‘Arab region building approach’ capable of setting the agenda for a symmetrical trans-Mediterranean relationship.

On the other hand, the EU’s policies in the region since the 1990s have been equivocal and shrouded by inconsistency. The EU’s emphasis on a security-centered approach in migration management and the prioritization of stability over democracy in the MENA region, have led to widening the Euro-Mediterranean gap.

Of centrality to this claim is the discrepancy between European policy discourses that seek to advocate the EU as a normative power, and policy practices motivated by security-driven imperatives. The following illustrative examples help shed some light on this tension.

In the field of migration management, the EU promoted the Global Approach to Migration (GAM) as a revised instrument of its external migration policy in 2005. Embedding its approach in the perspective of a ‘genuine’ and ‘balanced’ partnership with its neighbors, the GAM is based on a inter-sectoral method of co-operation seeking to ensure that managing legal migration, combating irregular migration and boosting development go hand in hand. In practice, the EU has, however, placed in the last years, emphasis on extraterritorial migration control mechanisms. In addition to privileging conditionality in clauses pertaining to readmission, it has given prominence to the fight against irregular migration.

In the realm of democracy assistance, the promotion of democracy and human rights represented one of the major normative objectives of the 1995 Barcelona Declaration. Still, due to a mix of pragmatic and security-driven considerations, the EU has co-operated with authoritarian regimes that upheld stability in the Arab region and in the Euro-Mediterranean order. The EU has moreover promoted a gradualist path of liberalization in the Arab world which consisted in galvanizing economic reforms and providing support to civil society groups. Ironically enough, this gradualist strategy contributed to maintaining the façade of liberalization that autocratic regimes were eager to advertise.


At the heart of this discordance between the EU’s policy discourse and its practices in the Arab world lies the ambivalent concept of Europeanization. By striving to promote and benchmark European solutions beyond European frontiers, the EU neglected on the one hand the well-entrenched local realities of the Arab world, and failed to factor in the multiplicity of societal and political discourses kept at bay by Arab autocratic regimes.

In 2011, the uprisings which have transfigured the political sociology of the MENA region brought to light major fallacies in EU-MENA relations. At the same time, these uprisings are considered as an opportune occasion to redirect the path of EU-MENA relations.

In the light of the unfolding Arab revolts, the EU has initiated a review of its regional policies. The EC Communications in March and May 2011 have called for endorsing democratic change across the region by concomitantly empowering a wide spectrum of political and societal actors and by boosting economic and social development. The EU has also set to revamp the ENP so as to boost a bilateral approach, based on differentiation and contextualization rather than benchmarking and vagueness.

Noteworthy confidence building measures across the Mediterranean have been the replacement of the contested tool of conditionality with ‘the more for more’ principle, the endorsement of benefits such as Free Trade Agreements and mobility partnerships, and the adoption of an EU rhetoric that focuses on a “partnership for democracy”, ‘shared prosperity’ and ‘co-ownership’.


Nevertheless, skepticism prevails that these steps might only lead to cosmetic changes. What are the reasons behind this skeptical approach? And which practical steps can the EU embark on so as to broaden and deepen EU-MENA cooperation in the wake of the 2011 watershed?
A closer look at EU’s patterns of co-operation in the MENA region in the last decade enables us to infer that the EU has not only taken ambiguous positions with regards to democracy promotion in the region but has also held hesitant and contradictory discourses in crisis management processes. The Arab uprisings have brought these inconsistencies into the open.

Since 9/11, the EU has engaged in the MENA region with social and political actors whom it considered as moderate and liberal. Its uneasy relationship with Islamist parties has prevented it from tackling the interface between democratization and the requirement for inclusiveness. Still, in the light of the Arab transformations, the redefinition of the social contract in Arab societies and the rise of Islamist parties require shifts in EU rhetoric and practices. Today, the EU faces the challenge of revisiting the paradigmatic association of the Islamist challenge with regional instability.

Moreover, the Arab uprisings have brought to the fore the EU’s slow and hesitant responses to crisis situations. EU member states’ delayed and incoherent reactions to the migration crises triggered by the uprisings not only illustrate this weakness but point to the necessity of quicker and more co-ordinated responses in the future.


Against this backdrop, the EU has been called to revisit its approach on democracy assistance by endorsing the inclusion of all affected actors in democratic processes, and by adopting policy actions that support democratization from below rather than top-down reforms. Some challenges are worth noting.

While development aid aiming at sustaining democratic discourses and reviving deteriorating economies in the wake of the uprisings remains of paramount importance, boosting liberalization through economic means has proven to be unsatisfactory. In this regard, the EU has been invited by both academicians and practitioners to reflect on the type and extent of political engagement that it can bolster in the light of the Arab uprisings.

It is worth mentioning that controversy hovers over the nature, and desirability of a bolder EU political engagement in the Arab world especially that external meddling has acted as a double-edged sword in the Arab region. Nevertheless, keeping in mind that political engagement is not necessarily a slippery slope to interventionism, the EU could seize this opportunity so as to consolidate a constructive relationship with its Southern neighbours.

In the wake of the uprisings, the EU has declared its intention to forge new partnerships with emerging actors, parties and movements in the various Arab states undergoing transformations. While these steps are primordial, they are not sufficient.

In a transitioning Arab order, the EU is bound to rethink its partnerships with regional powers in the Arab region. If the EU is to emerge as a credible actor in democracy assistance, then it should dispense with the old practice of partnering with states that promise to uphold stability. It can for instance distinguish between regional partners, recognizing that certain Arab states’ support to change in the Arab world does not necessarily stem from an interest in boosting democratization. Further, it can refrain from endorsing regional initiatives that anchor divide and rule schemes or inflame sectarian tensions. Building upon the bitter lessons of democracy engagement in the Middle East, it can abstain from backing quick-fix solutions in post-authoritarian settings.

On another level, EU responses to the Arab uprising have been criticized for being ‘Euro-centric’, half-hearted and ambiguous, and have therefore cast doubt on the prospects for a trans-Mediterranean rapprochement. In this regard, bridging the gap between a European and an Arab perspective of current changes in the Arab region is crucial. The rationale underpinning this lies in the scholarly discourses that have problematized how Western policy perceptions of the Arab world and of Islam in the wake of 9/11 have obfuscated dialogue.

From this perspective, financing research and empowering academic and media discourses that help depict Arab narratives away from Western-centric and orientalist interpretative frameworks can set the tone for the development of a more balanced dialogue.

Indeed, there seems to be a growing consensus that there is much to gain if Western media and policy frameworks abstain from evaluating too rapidly the Arab revolts and their outcomes, and if Western academia refrains from applying hasty paradigms to explaining and forecasting transitions. Providing a better understanding of Arab realities can surely inform more balanced and efficient ways of external assistance.


Another challenge that the EU will sooner or later face in its overhaul of regional policies with the Arab world is whether, and if so, how it should review its multilateral framework of co-operation with a transitioning Arab world. The former Barcelona process and the Union for the Mediterranean (UFM), currently criticized for compartmentalizing issues of co-operation whilst sidelining core political problems, have called into question the multilateral dimension of Euro-Arab co-operation.

Experts underline that a bilateral approach embodied in the ENP action plans is currently well-suited to implement tailor-made reforms in various Arab countries. Yet, while the bilateral approach can help boost democratic transitions in individual countries, tackling in the long term structural issues obstructing reform and good governance in the MENA region would still require multilateral channels. Suffice it to say that a bilateral approach cannot address protracted conflicts, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict known for having sustained authoritarian rule and discourses in the region. Neither can it launch an inclusive Euro-Mediterranean dialogue on how to boost regional integration in the light of the transitions.