The European Union is supposed to have a foreign policy. It doesn’t call it a foreign policy; the EU calls it a “Neighbourhood Policy” for fear of giving the game away that many serious players in Brussels would prefer Europe to be a single European state. The Southern Neighbourhood Policy sits within this framework, and is what the EU awkwardly labels its haphazard approach to the Middle East and North Africa.
“Neighbourhood” implies picket fences, lawn mowers and quaint co-existence in the suburbs. The Southern Neighbourhood is more post-apocalyptic Detroit than Wisteria Lane, comprising war torn Syria, autocratic Egypt, collapsed Libya, expansionist Israel, strained Lebanon, even more strained Jordan, teetering Tunisia, mildly promising Algeria and restless Morocco.
We should be thankful at least that the military bite of the Southern Neighbourhood Policy has so far extended to deploying only twice: once to secure a maritime route against pirates off the coast of Somalia (possibly the only sensible plan yet), and more recently to pursue a “moronic and absurd” scheme to “militarily disrupt” people smugglers in Libya. There are a few minor aid programmes involved too, which the European Union boasts about on its fanciful Southern Neighbourhood website, but the number of euros involved is tiny; a bit like watching your neighbour’s house burn down and offering them a half-empty watering can to quench the flames.
Foreign policy mistakes often happen when domestic politics drives military decisions. The key point of difference for Brussel’s foreign policy is promising in this regard. Instead of kneejerk reactions from individual national executives, Brussels is run by a painfully slow bureaucracy which is, in theory, accountable to twenty-eight different states. This is actually an advantage, for foreign policy should be based on consensus; it should not be hasty; it should not be linked to single political parties addressing their own local needs. It should also be based on expert views.
Take Libya. Brussels was unable to restrain Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron from pursuing a back-of-the-fag-packet plan to depose Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. The EU could have been the quiet voice pointing out that few Libya experts thought the dictator was about to embark on an entirely self-defeating “civilian massacre”.
Buying this time, Brussels could then have pointed out that the circumstances in Libya were different from those in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. Sage European analysts, not worried by the acute political pressures faced by national executives, could have “technocratically” queried why there was a rebellion in Benghazi but not Tripoli; noted that the country was held together by a personality cult and had no realistic prospect of cohesion should the dictator fall too suddenly; and that Algeria was already offering to broker a departure deal.
Instead, Brussels stood by as the Parisian policy establishment fell under the influence of self-serving and deluded anti-Qaddafi exiles. It did nothing to restrain David Cameron, whose Conservative Party was eager to gain political capital from discrediting Blair’s “hugs in the desert” rapprochement strategy, and to launch what at first glance appeared to be another heroic war of good versus evil which Sky News and Rupert Murdoch would surely approve of. While Cameron and Sarkozy had every incentive to respond quickly, Brussels did not. Yet it stayed silent.
Take Egypt. Here, Brussels had some clout to throw around in Egypt’s search for a stable post-revolutionary democracy, particularly after the military coup in 2013. Taken individually, each of the southern European countries’ trading arrangements with Egyptian businesses were not significant. Taken together, the EU was in a position to offer or withdraw access to these markets through the upcoming negotiation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Deal (DCFTA), a pending agreement which would account for roughly a quarter of Egypt’s trade volume.
Instead of attaching conditions to this new trade policy – perhaps for Sisi to hold free and fair elections, release Egypt’s democratically elected former president and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to promote candidates — the then EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Cathy Ashton, who headed the Neighbourhood Policy, sent observers to oversee Sisi’s sham polls; she effectively endorsed the military coup. By giving succour to Sisi’s disdain for democracy, Ashton pushed Egyptian Islamists away from their first meaningful engagement with mainstream politics, and set an example to other groups in the region that peaceful participation in democracy was less viable than had first been presumed. In doing so, the EU prompted many of the Islamists who had only a hesitant attachment to engaging in political processes to throw down their placards and voting slips, and opt for radicalisation instead.
Take Palestine. Nowadays, Brussels appears largely ambivalent towards the Israeli occupation and Palestinian suffering, and plays a bit-part role in brokering peace. Back in 1980, though, the European Union set a daring precedent by adopting the Venice Declaration, which was the first Western expression of support for a two-state solution. This put the EU at odds with some of its members and the United States, but over the next two decades the Venice Declaration played a key role in pushing the international consensus towards such a solution. Thirteen years before the Oslo Accords, Brussels had also broken new ground by recognising that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation must be a recognised partner in the peace process. Again, this move played a key role in moving the international community towards a far more constructive position.
Brussels is a strange beast. It is theoretically democratic but thanks to low turn-outs in the home countries, physical distance and a lack of media interest, its politicians are often able to pursue quite radical positions on specific policy issues.
This lack of accountability has its drawbacks, but it also presents an opportunity for those seeking a radical alternative to Western foreign policy-making methodology. Veteran analysts, experienced academics, cultural experts and social scientists are rarely consulted in the heat of the moment by individual nation states; as a journalist who spends a great deal of time interviewing these kinds of people, I feel strongly that this a missed opportunity. I believe that there is a compelling argument for technocratic not political control of foreign policies, driven by intellectuals rather than inexpert politicians pandering for votes.
A perfect testing ground for this new approach would be the European External Action Service, effectively the foreign office of Brussels. The EEAS, distanced from the to and fro of messy national democracies, could quietly pioneer this radical new technocratic approach, an experiment that perhaps others would follow in the years to come. That is perhaps the greatest disappointment of the Southern Neighbourhood Policy; there is so much potential, yet so little has been done. And looking south across the Mediterranean, in a region so perilously close and chaotic, it is clear that a more radical approach may be needed, and soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.