After the ‘democratic storm’: the EU and the ‘new Mediterranean’
In December 2010, revolt and unrest broke out in Tunisia and Algeria. The situation rapidly proliferated and several other countries in the Middle East and North Africa were soon affected by turmoil and violence: Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and, of course, Libya. In some of these countries, revolt ended with the fall of long-serving rulers. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali lost power in Tunisia after 24 years, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt after 30 years. But in some countries, mass rallies and protests did not result in the fall of the incumbent governments. Elsewhere, there is a prolonged state of crisis, such as in Libya, where the crisis has been ‘internationalised’ by NATO intervention. The causes of this turmoil are varied. Here, however, the discussion will focus only on the impact of these crises on the EU and its stance toward its turbulent and volatile neighbouring region.
Geographical proximity does not always automatically result in close ‘political attention’, as was the case with the European Community (EC) and the Mediterranean during the early stages of the European integration experiment. The EC did not have a Mediterranean policy for a long time. From 1958 to the early 1970s, bilateral relations and commercial agreements represented the basis of the European approach toward the region. The situation changed only in the early 1970s with the launch of the Global Mediterranean Policy of 1972, which signalled the beginning of an era of greater attention. Shortly after, the Euro-Arab dialogue was also implemented, the first European reaction to the shock caused by the oil crisis of 1973.
The activism of the 1970s gradually dwindled in the following decade. However, during the 1980s, the accession of three southern European countries to the EC – Greece in 1981, followed by Spain and Portugal in 1986 – marked a major change in the configuration of the EC, increasing the weight and importance of the Mediterranean region to the community. At that time also, a major global shift occurred with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold war, which offered the opportunity to Europe to play a major, independent role in the Middle East. The end of the ‘strategic box’ created by the Cold war freed the energies of many actors, no longer forced to modulate their interests according to bipolar logic. Its end also led to the complete emergence of globalisation, whose historical roots were far older but whose emergence was only clear after the end of the Cold war. This systemic breaking point implied an overall re-evaluation of the political and security priorities of Europe, which faced enormous challenges on its eastern borders as well as to the south.
At that time, the geopolitical picture of the Mediterranean was also complicated by the interaction of peculiar regional dynamics with these wider systemic changes. The Gulf crisis of 1991 was a key, regional catalyst for major change. First, it marked the increasing, direct activism played by the US in the region, culminating in the occupation of Iraq twelve years later. Moreover, the outcome of the 1991 conflict opened a new window of opportunity for a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the key strategic issue for regional balance. The Madrid conference of 1993 and the subsequent Oslo accords inaugurated a new era in the history of the conflict. The optimism sparked by these regional developments, as well as the optimism connected with the perceived victory of liberal-democracy and the spread of western values – successfully synthesised by Fukuyama’s brand of the ‘end of history’ – helped develop the framework in which the European Union (EU) implemented a new initiative to govern the relationships with its Mediterranean neighbours: the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. Convened in Barcelona in 1995, the 15 members of the EU and 12 Mediterranean countries signed the Barcelona declaration. Stressing multilateralism and discourses of regional unity, the document was organised in three parts, called ‘baskets’ or ‘volets’: the first part focused on economic and financial cooperation; the second aimed at addressing the political and security dimension of the relationship, and the third basket paid specific attention to the socio-cultural and human aspects of the partnership. The philosophy characterising the partnership was typical of the emerging European stance in international politics: achieving political aims through economic means.
Using its considerable economic power to influence political outcomes is a classic EU trait. It is the largest trade bloc in the world and represents the largest export market for the countries of the Mediterranean basin. Therefore, it holds considerable economic and commercial leverage over them. However, these two dimensions are not always directly correlated. Political influence does not automatically flow from economic power – trade relationships with many countries of the Mediterranean have clearly shown that. Indeed, the overall result of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership did not satisfy the original ambition and the causal link between economic and political reform has not been supported by any empirical evidence. After a few years, the EU decided to launch a new policy. The limited results of the Barcelona process; the institutional challenge of EU eastern enlargement; the transformed conditions of the international system post-9/11; the deterioration in the Arab-Israeli issue, and the intra-European divisions on the Iraqi dossier in 2003: all these elements oriented the EU to implement a new strategy to govern relations with its neighbours, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The ENP emerged not as a substitute for the Barcelona process – rather it was designed to incorporate it. Increased attention was paid to bilateral relations and the holistic ambitions of 1995 were de-emphasised. The latest institutional step of the EU approach toward the Mediterranean was represented by the launch of the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’ in 2008. Based on a French attempt to ‘revitalise’ the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue – and to guide EU foreign policy toward this region – its results once again did not meet expectations.
Generally speaking, significant normative tension was prevalent in the different official approaches of the EU toward the Mediterranean in the post Cold war era. Since then, the EU has become an active player in the field of democracy promotion. Mediterranean countries were major targets for these efforts, which were strictly related to the ideological core of the EU as a normative power. However, the Mediterranean was also an interesting case study of the structural tension between normative goals and more immediate security aims. The Mediterranean is a meaningful regional sample of the post-Cold war global system: state relations are based on fear, distrust and self help; domestically, political stability is harmed by situations of latent internal tension, fostered by ethnic, religious, social and economic cleavages and by the lack of democracy. This region is also a perfect example of how culture can influence international relations. The eruption of these crises has showed, once again, the difficulties that the EU faces when dealing with this region.
The first major issue to analyse is the impact on the EU of the ‘narratives of democratisation’ spreading through the southern rim of the basin. The EU suffers from a sort of eternal dilemma, which can be synthesised with the formula ‘normative pureness versus stability interests’. Given the specific historical conditions in which European integration has emerged, and given its philosophical roots, characterising its foreign policy stance with a normative tension has represented a sort of ‘ontological duty’ for Europeans.
However, in more practical terms, this theoretical soul has not turned into an effective pursuit of these normative aims. More immediate strategic interests have often hampered its practical declination. Democracy promotion in the Mediterranean provides a paradigmatic case. The commitment to encouraging democratic reforms reflects an innate understanding of EU values. It was also one of the main pillars of all the key documents shaping European foreign policy, both on the wider global level and the narrower Mediterranean dimension. That said, the history of the past few decades has shown that Europeans were far more concerned about guaranteeing stability – the status quo – rather than pursuing effective strategies to promote democratisation to the south.
The words of the European Commissioner for Enlargement and the ENP, Stefan Füle, are typical of this attitude:
‘Europe has a vital interest in a democratic, stable, prosperous, peaceful North Africa in its immediate neighbourhood. Europe must and will rise to the challenge of supporting democratic transition in North Africa, as it did after the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989… we must show humility about the past. Europe was not vocal enough in defending human rights and local democratic forces in the region. Too many of us fell prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the region. This was not even Realpolitik. It was, at best, short-termism – and the kind of short-termism that makes the long-term ever more difficult to build.’
The EU has frequently decided to prioritise stability over democratisation. Often, there are short-term conflicting aims: when a country experiences an opening of its political system, its stability is affected. However, in the long-term, democracy guarantees a greater degree of political sustainability and it affects positively the stability of a country. It is this ‘temporal clash’ that harms EU effectiveness. Given its features and tools of influence, the EU is much more focused on milieu goals rather than immediate possession goals. However, immediate political and security needs, if not satisfied, risk harming the attainment of these milieu goals.
Southern Mediterranean revolutions will likely increase pressure on this European stance. Democratisation involves the creation of new political cleavages within a society and the pluralisation of power centres. Moreover, the role played by the military in Egypt and Tunisia suggests that the optimistic idea of a sort of mechanic democratic destiny for these countries seems groundless. This ‘fourth global wave’ of democratisation is still far from being completely deployed. That said, the EU and its credibility as a foreign policy actor must again face this eternal dilemma. These revolts will put enormous pressure on the EU over democracy promotion in the coming years. Many observers have already considered these implications, suggesting that the EU must abandon its shyness over support for democratic reform. The EU could try to ‘seize this democratic momentum’ and effectively support countries through the lengthy and difficult process of democratisation.
Another salient effect of these crises is represented by the split among the Europeans, above all concerning the international intervention in Libya. These southern Mediterranean crises are the first post-Lisbon tests for EU foreign policy. Formally, the EU has all it needs to play a more effective and coherent international role now. It finally has a legal personality. It has brand new foreign policy institutions and players: a permanent president of the council, Herman Van Rompuy, and a high representative for foreign security and defence, Catherine Ashton, a sort of EU minister for foreign affairs, mixing the two hats of the CFSP high representative and the commissioner for external relations. The creation of the new European External Action Service (EEAS) should support a consistent EU foreign policy. It should be a tool for European governments to develop shared opinions on political and strategic problems, advancing common interests on the basis of common analyses.
It should be pointed out that these institutions are very young, so it is hardly surprising that they are not yet as effective as they might be. However, the reaction of the EU after the eruption of these crises was particularly slow, and member states have tended to advance their own national agendas. The Libyan crisis was the catalyst for these inner tensions. France, the UK, Italy, Spain, and Germany have all acted according to their own agendas, trying to advance their own, narrower interests, and at the same time harming some foundational principles of the EU, as with the case of the French-Italian dispute over migrants and free human circulation in the Schengen area. These crises have shown that what the EU misses the most is not ‘institutions’ but a shared ‘geopolitical feeling’, the main reason for the recurrent internal divisions. The EU has the institutions to enact a proper foreign policy, but it does not have its own geopolitical soul yet.
The eruption of these Mediterranean crises has shown, once again, the two major weaknesses of the European approach to the region and, more generally, of its foreign policy. The points stressed here – the lack of an effective translation of normative intentions into concrete political choices and the repeated splits among member states – represent two recurrent criticalities of EU foreign policy, above all in its Mediterranean dimension. As mentioned before, the ‘temporal clash’ here represents a major issue the EU needs to address to increase the consistency and coherence of its foreign policy. The Mediterranean region, given its structural features and its geographical proximity, will often test the EU on these two specific points and the way in which the Europeans manage them will impact their future foreign policy.