Europe was quick in its response to the Arab Spring and adopted a new approach to relations with its Southern neighbours. Nonetheless, despite the great efforts and numerous investments and projects in the region, the perception of the Arab masses has not changed in a way that reflects the deep and serious commitments made by both the EU and European states.
By 8 March, 2011, Catherine Ashton and the European Commission proposed “a partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean.” At a time when the EU is in deep economic and financial crisis, billions of euros have been budgeted for grant support to the region. For instance, the European Commission has allocated €80.5 million to the refugee crisis in North Africa, while EU Member States have provided €73 million as an immediate financial response to provide humanitarian aid. The European Investment Bank (EIB) increased its budget for the Southern Neighbourhood from €4 billion to €5 billion for humanitarian aid. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) extended its geographical coverage to include the Southern Neighbourhood and provided up to €2.5 billion per year to support public and private investments. The EU has also endorsed programmes like SPRING (Support for Partnership Reform and Inclusive Growth), the creation of a Civil Society Facility for the neighborhood and an Erasmus Mundus programme, which makes the total budget to strengthen the capacity of civil society to promote reform and increase public accountability in their countries more than €350 million for 2011 and 2012. Furthermore, in its budget for the period 2014-2020, the European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI) has allocated €15.433 billion to support the 16 partner countries of the Southern Neighbourhood.
Distressingly, these significant efforts were not interpreted as tangible results. The perception of the Arab masses favoured other players and not the EU. This conclusion was put forward by several polls showing the rise of the popularity of others, compared with the EU, in the Arab world.
In a survey conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESAV) in 2011, 78 per cent of Arabs saw Turkey as “the most favourable” country. Despite a slight decline, Turkey remained the most favoured with 69 per cent one year after the start of the Arab Spring, according to TESAV 2012 polls. Although the way people perceived the EU’s role differed from one country to another, the third Euromed investigation, presented to the European Parliament, showed that between December 2011 and February 2012 most of the opinions also favoured Turkey, which could beat the EU as a “supporter” of the Arab Spring countries, while the European Union ranked second and the United States third.
A 2013 survey by TESAV has shown that the positive perception about Turkey in the Arab world has decreased, with 59 per cent supporting a greater regional role for Turkey, but it was not replaced by the EU. Turkey ranked third in 2013 in terms of positive perception, after the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The TESAV poll has also shown an increase in the positive perceptions about Russia and China in the region.
In fact, many European officials have not seen these challenges facing the EU and its role in the region, calling it at times “weak”, as uttered bluntly by Dick Toornstra, director at the Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy (OPPD) in the European Parliament in an interview with Euractiv on 6 May 2013, when he considered the Arab Spring ‘a wake-up call’ that revealed the lack of a coherent and consistently applied foreign policy. In an attempt to identify the reason behind the Arabs’ aversion to the EU or seeking a bigger role for the EU in the region, a number of explanations can explain this state of affairs.
First and foremost, the EU has been seen by Arabs as one of the key supporters of their former autocratic regimes, intensifying collaboration with Ben Ali in Tunisia, visiting and receiving Mubarak of Egypt frequently, cooperating heavily with Gaddafi in Libya, ostensibly turning a blind eye to Assad’s wrongdoings in Syria and providing clear assistance for Saleh in Yemen. Such a perception cannot just vanish overnight.
Second, the EU continued its collaboration with NGOs and organisations labelled for their loyalty to toppled regimes. All the projects and assistance the EU provides to the Arab world have been channelled through the same organisations during the dictators’ rule. Choosing new channels and maybe replacing some of these NGOs by others at this critical transitional period is deemed essential for not being caught out complying with the old regimes.
Third, the European model is an appealing tool that demonstrates the strength of Europe’s potential soft power. Yet, this power has been, so far, neutralised by the lack of coherent policies and an ineffective role in the region. The crux of this state of affairs was summarised by the director of the Centre for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Avi Primor, who described in 2004 the European role in the Middle East Peace Process as “un coup d’epee dans l’eau” (a sword strike in the water); that is, not carrying any weight.
In other words, as long as the European Union does not formulate a common, coherent foreign and defense policy, it will remain on the doorstep of the Arab world, unable to play a major role. This fact has been realised by the Arab masses, which currently cannot envision a bigger role for the EU, given the enormous clout that the United States and others have in the region.
Fourth is the consecutive failure of EU efforts to embrace regional countries under one umbrella (think Barcelona Process in 1995, European Neighbourhood Policy framework in 2004, the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument [ENPI] in 2007 and Union for the Mediterranean [UfM] in 2008). None of these efforts has borne fruit, making it more likely for any future efforts to get the cold shoulder from the Arabs.
Finally, old memories of the colonial era persist in such a way that makes it difficult for many Arabs to digest a deeper European involvement in the region. However, the Arab Spring has unleashed a new set of dynamics. Given the decreasing popularity of the United States and as Arab compassion toward others has chilled somewhat (due to their controversial regional policies), a power vacuum is remaining and expanding. Europe’s odds for building influence and re-setting relations are on the rise, considering geographic proximity, its soft power and common history.
Nonetheless, as grim as the picture may appear, there are glimmers of light. Chief adviser to the prime minister of Turkey Ibrahim Kalin says: “The future of the nation-state depends on its ability to adjust itself to the new realities of a very complex and sophisticated process of globalisation and regionalisation.” In this vein, one would argue that the EU may need to have its policies reviewed, adjusted and replaced by sound and realistic ones. For example, Europe has a lot to offer in the realms of education and democracy, noting that the current developments in the Arab world have highlighted the solid connection between education and sound democracy.
Moreover, solving the perennial problems of migration and radicalisation can be realised through encouraging economic cooperation, which will not only help fight poverty as well as radicalisation and migration, but would also certainly embed democracy. Encouraging intra-regional interaction, job creation, investment, lending experience and know-how, and promoting tourism, are other key policies that would help solve the desperate socioeconomic conditions that triggered the Arab uprisings.
Fadi Elhusseini is a Political and Media Counsellor in Turkey. He is an associate research fellow (ESRC) at the Institute for Middle East Studies-Canada and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sunderland in Britain. His articles have appeared in scores of newspapers, magazines and websites, including the Washington Institute, Foreign Policy Association, Middle East Monitor, International Security Observer, Geopolitical Monitor and others. Elhusseini is a native Arabic speaker, fluent in English and proficient in French and Italian, with basic knowledge of Turkish.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.