The failings of the EU’s approach to democracy promotion were exposed as autocratic regimes collapsed. It now faces a long-term challenge of rethinking MENA policy.
In 2011, Europeans suddenly had to provide material and moral support to the spontaneous uprisings and revolutions sweeping across the region. This often meant a huge change of approach after years of compromises with autocratic regimes. Europeans fumbled on several occasions in terms of a lack of short-term support forregime change and human rights, and they came under justified criticism for inaction at the time of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. At times, concerns about immigration seemed more pressing to member states such as Italy and France than support for democratic change. Europeans eventually backed the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt and imposed political and economic sanctions on Syria and Libya, and NATO took military action in the latter case. But Europeans took a passive role on Yemen (see component 63) and did little to support democratic protests in Bahrain (see component 64).
The longer-term challenge for the EU is to rethink MENA policy and prioritise democracy promotion consistently. Following a European Council decision in February, the European Commission and the EEAS proposed increasing the use of conditionality and greater incentives for democracy as part of the ENP. So far, however, it is not clear whether this will be implemented. Funding for democracy, civil society support, electoral assistance and governance was redirected towards Libya and Tunisia, where progress towards democracy was most visible – but the amounts still remain vastly insufficient. Poland suggested creating a European Endowment for Democracy, although details are still unclear. High Representative Catherine Ashton launched a global strategy for human rights, but it was supported only by a handful of member states such as Denmark, Poland and Sweden. The EU now faces further challenges as it tries to engage with Islamist movements with which it is unfamiliar and has until now rejected. In the end, deeper democracy in the region will probably translate into a decrease in the EU’s direct leverage over resources and policies, but could consolidate more meaningful stability that is ultimately in Europe’s interests.