The Arab Spring has prompted a more energetic European consideration of how to support transitions from authoritarianism in southern Mediterranean countries, yet a thorough rethink of its regional approach remains a distant prospect. One obstacle is that the framework for multilateral cooperation, the Union for the Mediterranean (UFM), with 43 member countries, is simply too heterogeneous to permit political collaboration or agree on mechanisms for sub-regional cooperation. France, its promoter, has used an intergovernmental approach involving bilateral deals to attempt leadership of the partnership. French activism has proved inadequate, however, and the UFM simply has never got off the ground.
The signs of failure were evident well before the Tunisian uprising, in the postponement of UFM summits and frustrated attempts to renew the co-presidency. Recently, even France has acknowledged a need to adapt European policy in order to address the new opportunities and challenges in the Arab world.
Proposals to reorient European policy have come from the European Commission and the fledgling European External Action Service, first through advocacy of a “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity
” and more recently through proposals arising from a review of the European Neighbourhood Policy
(ENP) and creation of a new “Task Force for the Southern Mediterranean.” Already, however, the more radical ideas—such as visa liberalization and greater market access for agricultural produce—have received cool responses from a number of member states. Meanwhile, ideas to create a European Endowment for Democracy and a Civil Society Facility exist only in a skimpy outline.
UFM Still Around for Now
The UFM, however troubled, seems set to remain for two reasons. There is no mood in the EU or demand from the Arab states for it to be abandoned, especially now that some of the early enthusiasts (former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Moratinos) are no longer involved and France is more open to adaptation: an enhanced EU role in the co-Presidency, new UFM projects with a civil society focus, and greater emphasis on political conditionality through the ENP. Also, because there is a need for urgency in responding to developments in the Arab world, the prevailing EU attitude is that it is better to revisit the wardrobe and find old items there that can be put to new use more or less immediately. In the case of the ENP, a policy review was underway well before the Arab upheavals commenced.
Thus, the UFM will remain in existence for some time, but will contribute little to meeting the challenges posed by the Arab Spring. The Secretariat in Barcelona is still not playing its envisaged role, though there is hope that the recent appointment of a new general secretary, Youssef Amrani (former secretary-general of the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs) may introduce a more practical approach. Yet how can new projects in support of civil society development be introduced? Both project approval and renewal of the UFM co-Presidency (to replace France and Egypt) require holding a summit. And a summit remains difficult to achieve as Syria, for one, has been using its influence to block any high profile events that imply normal relations with Israel.
Meanwhile, the idea of using the Lisbon Treaty to make the EU a more central UFM driving force is impeded by European governments that favor an intergovernmental style of decision making. For example, the UK has been blocking the idea of the EU High Representative acting on behalf of the EU in the UFM co-Presidency, concerned that this could set a precedent for how Lisbon will be applied on a more general scale.
ENP: the Bilateral Approach
This leaves the ENP, which is organized on a bilateral basis, as the main vehicle for the EU response to the Arab Spring. What is promised here is increased differentiation of relations with the EU’s neighbours, depending on the extent to which they reform their systems. Conditionality is being emphasized much more than in the past and support for democratization will be mainstreamed. The offer is now “more for more:" greater benefits for the countries that decide to converge across the board with Europe.
The effectiveness of conditionality will depend on whether or not the EU can actually deliver enhanced benefits through new ENP Action Plans. New development and democracy support money is being pledged to assist countries seriously undertaking reform, but EU actors are divided over issues such as human mobility -- not to mention what to do about the ongoing conflict in Libya.
The ENP has the advantage over the UFM in that its bilateral structure allows for relationships with Arab partners to develop at variable speeds. It still suffers, however, from serious limitations. First, it does not involve all of the EU’s southern neighbours; Libya remains outside, and Algeria shows little enthusiasm. Second, for the EU to rely solely on the ENP would mean abandoning Euro-Med multilateralism completely. Yet for all its shortcomings, the Barcelona Process did have some successes, such as the creation of the Anna Lindh Foundation, which has developed a regional network of over 3,000 civil society organizations.
While reform or replacement of the UFM is unlikely to happen any time soon, the regional level of partnership needs attention and initiative. To overcome its paralysis, the geometry needs rethinking. Collaboration of the 43 UFM member states might be valid for some areas of activity, but what is needed is a tiering of Euro-Mediterranean structures that can also enable the establishment of sub-regional bodies based on countries and institutions that share a common interest in dialogue and collaboration in particular fields. “Sub-regional” need not necessarily be a geographical category; in fact, the application of variable geometry might prove more viable if defined in terms of agenda. At present, they are held back by disinterest or opposition from other UFM countries.
Such an approach is hinted at in the “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity” document, which states that a commitment to “adequately monitored free and fair elections” should be “the entry qualification for the Partnership.” But this proposal does not envisage creating new structures. Despite some refocusing of the ENP, it is far from clear that European support for democratization through unilateral (and eventually, bilateral) activity will be given the push that the situation demands.
Richard Gillespie is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and editor of Mediterranean Politics.