European countries are playing a central role in the Libyan intervention, and the EU is looking to help the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt. But before Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, setting off the sequence of protests, how well did Europe perform when dealing with its southern neighbourhood last year?

In the final weeks of 2010, a young man in Tunisia set himself on fire in a protest against insulting treatment by the police and lack of economic opportunity.  Mohammed Bouazizi’s action set off a chain reaction in Tunisia and across the Arab Mediterranean world that has brought down two authoritarian rulers, started a civil war in Libya and awakened the populations of the whole region.  For the present and the immediate future, the Southern part of the European neighbourhood will clearly be the most important focus of European foreign policy, as the future of the region is at stake. 

The scale of this change in the southern neighbourhood took activists and politicians in the region, analysts and foreign policymakers alike by surprise. For most of last year, it was all too easy to see North Africa and the Middle East as a static region, where European policy was not likely to bring dramatic change. The region did not represent one of the EU’ s own priorities for its foreign policy.  For this reason, the ECFR Scorecard 2010 does not include a specific chapter on Europe’s performance in the southern neighbourhood, although the 2011 Scorecard clearly will.  

Nevertheless, the protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, along with the central role being played European countries in the Libyan intervention, inevitably pose the question: how did Europe perform in dealing with its southern neighbourhood in 2010?

Using the same broad framework as the Scorecard of looking at unity, resources and outcomes – but without pretending to replicate the project’s research methodology or awarding grades – this short piece of analysis looks back at Europe’s relationship with North Africa and the Middle East in 2010.

 

Unity

In retrospect, it is clear that the EU was guilty of a failure of imagination.  It did not see the signs of change beneath the surface of stagnation, or if it did, this did not influence the overall approach. Through their uncritical engagement with authoritarian rulers, European countries were tacitly endorsing repression.  These countries evidently failed to see any way to put any pressure for meaningful political reform on the veteran authoritarian rulers of North Africa without jeopardising the interests that were uppermost in their minds: cooperation on migration, the guarantee of apparent stability, energy supplies and help with counterterrorism.  Policies were set above all by the European countries that border the Mediterranean and who are most directly affected by what happens in the region: France, Italy and Spain in particular. 

At some level, European leaders may have known that stability built on repression, corruption and a lack of opportunity was not likely to provide a sustainable future for the region.  At an embassy level, some countries, particularly the Nordic states, are highlighted by activists in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as having followed through on this conviction in their engagement with their host governments in North Africa more than others.  But, led by the security concerns of southern European countries, at a central and senior political level, the EU chose only to talk about political reform while pursuing relationships with authoritarian rulers that ignored it in practice.  Instead of the high minded ideals put forward by the European Neighbourhood Policy, and to some extent followed through in the eastern neighbourhood, the EU’s focus in the South was primarily on economic reform and development.  Economic objectives in the association agreements negotiated with North African countries were monitored with a degree of attention that was not given to democracy and human rights.

 

Resources

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton did devote a lot of attention to the issue, with several visits to the region.  The year’s most significant moment came when Israeli forces stormed a flotilla of boats carrying aid to Gaza, killing nine Turkish crew members.  While the EU divided on the issue in the United Nations system, European pressure may have played some part in persuading the Israeli government to relax slightly the blockade in the aftermath of the flotilla incident.

However, in many other ways, the EU failed to react to what activists described as a worsening climate on human rights and democracy across the region.  The 2010 parliamentary elections in Egypt marked a reverse in terms of fairness on the previous elections in 2005, with Mubarak’s NDP being awarded an overwhelming majority of seats.  EU officials criticised the conduct of the elections, but this criticism did not have an impact on the broader framework of European-Egyptian relations.  At an EU-Morocco summit at the beginning of the year, European Council President Herman van Rompuy made some forthright comments on human rights in Morocco – but again the overall relationship, which categorised Morocco as a leader in the region on political reform, continued irrespective of these concerns.

 In October, Commissioners Malmstrom and Fuhle signed a migration cooperation agenda with Libya, which they argued first was a first step to solving the serious challenge of irregular migration from Africa to Europe. Activists argued that it shirked the EU’s responsibilities to migrants under international law, ignoring Libya’s appalling record on treatment of migrants, for the sake of expediency, when this could have been a moment to try to exert some pressure to end abuses of fundamental rights in this area.

 

Outcome

A clear example of the EU prioritising economic over political reform, leaving civil society in the country in question unsupported in the efforts to push for political opening, came in the decision to begin negotiations with Tunisia on an advanced status within the European Neighbourhood Policy in the spring of 2010. Tunisia under Ben Ali was admittedly an example of successful development according to some indicators – but it was also a repressive society where political opposition and freedom of the media were stifled.  Ben Ali’s government even introduced a draconian NGO law in the period when advanced status talks were being considered, in order to prevent Tunisian activists from lobbying the EU to be tougher on human rights questions. 

The lack of ambition of European policy, and the consequent absence of outcome reflecting the EU’s rhetoric , was also visibly illustrated by the fate of the Union for the Mediterranean, which was supposed to provide the defining framework for EU relations with the Middle East and North Africa.  The Union’s focus on projects in areas like solar power and water management left political questions off the table entirely.  Attempts to organise a high-profile summit meeting of Mediterranean leaders at the end of the Spanish Presidency, in summer 2010, were nothing short of a fiasco, as the summit was repeatedly postponed because of political disputes between Israel and Arab countries.

As 2010 was drawing to a close, a fortnight before protests in Tunisia escalated and changed the EU’s relationship with North Africa for good, Europe’s disarray over how to emphasise values at the same time as protecting economic interests was exposed one final time.  After months of wrangling in the EU on whether Tripoli was a suitable venue for the third EU-Africa summit, and a clear demand from Colonel Gaddafi for more money to protect Europe from greater influxes of migrants in return for hosting the event, the summit did take place there. Gaddafi’s opening statement has an eerie ring to it in retrospect, and highlights the extent to which the EU was failing to make any impact with its values agenda in the region by this stage: “Africa has other choices. Let every country and every group govern itself. Every country is free to serve its own interests.” When it came to human rights, the two sides of the Mediterranean were simply talking past each other in 2010.

What next?

Looking forward, the EU is now speaking of a new framework of policy for the southern Mediterranean, based around a “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity”.  The ambition to put democratic reform at the centre of European policy in the region is a welcome change from the passivity and cynicism that marked Europe’s approach in the past.  But it is not yet clear whether the rhetoric will translate into a policy response to the changes in Egypt and Tunisia that is on a scale comparable to the significance of developments there.  And the EU has not yet given any sense of how it will change its approach to other countries in the region, where pro-democracy uprisings have not yet carried the day.  These will be the questions to look at during 2011, when the southern Mediterranean will be at the forefront of European policy.

Read more on: Human Rights, Wider Europe, The Middle East and North Africa, Scorecard

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.