Europe & the Arab Spring: EU Policy for the Mediterranean Arab States (Part 2 of 3)

By Alec Simantov

Part 2~
Abstract: In light of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011 and the spread of the ‘Arab Spring’ across the Middle East, the European Commission and the European Parliament have fundamentally called into question the effectiveness of current European Union (EU) policy toward the Mediterranean Arab states, the EU’s ‘southern neighborhood.’ Subsequently, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Fule, as well as the European Parliament have called for a re-examination of such policy. Currently, EU policy toward the Mediterranean is conducted through the bilateral “Action Plans” of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and the joint projects of the French-designed Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), both of which were born out of the Barcelona Process/Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP). These processes have aimed to create a stable ‘European neighborhood’ in the Mediterranean by promoting political and economic reforms in North Africa and the Middle East in hopes of contributing to the overall security of the European Union. However, the EMP as a whole, through the Neighborhood Policy and the Union for the Mediterranean, has been heavily criticized as having been ineffective in achieving the EU’s stated policy aims. This essay seeks to examine the effectiveness of the ENP and the Union for Mediterranean up to the current political crisis, if the UfM represents a defective policy overlap with the ENP, and whether or not new proposals presented by the Commission demonstrate a true rethinking of Mediterranean policy.

III. The Union for the Mediterranean and its discontents

The UfM primarily came into existence as a result of the lost momentum of the EMP. The southern and eastern Mediterranean partner countries had become disillusioned with the process and the ENP due to perceptions of the EU’s marginalization of development issues and emphasis on security. (Source: Erzsebet N. Rozsa, “From Barcelona to the Union for the Mediterranean,” (paper prepared for the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs, Budapest, 2010) 4.) They also complained about the conditionality of aid on political reforms and the ENP’s combination of focus of both the Mediterranean and Eastern European (eastern partnership) neighborhood regions into a single policy. The Mediterranean partners collectively voiced their displeasure with both the EMP and ENP with many Arab Mediterranean leaders choosing not to attend the tenth anniversary summit of the Barcelona Process in 2005. (Source: Ibid.) On the European side, anxiety over the U.S.’s ‘Greater Middle East Initiative’ sparked fears that Mediterranean partners would eschew partnership with the EU for generous U.S. funding. (Source: Rozsa, 4.) Jakub Wodka notes that the UfM’s existence is owed to the ENP’s fundamental flaws and its “geographical arbitrariness,” necessitating the ‘re-splitting’ of the southern neighborhood from the eastern one. (Source: Jakub Wodka, “Union for the Mediterranean and Eastern Partnership: Geopolitical Interests or Complementary Concepts,” Turkish Policy Quarterly 9:3 (2010): 151.) Thus the UfM came to be seen as a possibility for a “new and improved” version of the EMP with support from Mediterranean partners for a variety of the union’s new features; such as the co-presidency. (Source: Driss, 2-3.) The co-presidency became the central tenet of the UfM as a shift from “EU tutorship to co-ownership.” (Source: Rozsa, 7.)

Despite original speculative hopes that the UfM would indeed complement the bilateral approach of the ENP, the UfM has been routinely accused of remaining little more than a project that reflects French economic and political ambitions and concerns. (Source: Stephanie Colin, “The Union for the Mediterranean: Progress, Difficulties and Way Forward,” ICTSD, June 2009, accessed April 13, 2011,, 2.) The UfM was born as a uniquely French idea; the brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. His original vision for the ‘Mediterranean Union’ was a regional body that existed outside the EMP; an idea that aroused the ire of non-Mediterranean EU member states. (Source: Therese Carolin Tasche, “The Project of a Union for the Mediterranean –Pursuing French Objectives through the Instrumentalisation of the Mare Nostrum,” L’Europe en formation 356 (2010): 56.) The most vocal opposition of a Mediterranean Union that would compete with existing EU institutions came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Source: Wodka, 152.) Sarkozy’s vision was motivated solely by French domestic political and foreign policy interests. A separate Mediterranean Union with France at its head was meant to revitalize French international influence in Africa and create for itself a leading role in the Mediterranean littoral. (Source: Michael Reiterer, “From the (French) Mediterranean Union to the (European) Barcelona Process: The ‘Union for the Mediterranean’ as Part of the European Neighborhood Policy,” European Foreign Affairs Review 14 (2009): 320.) Sarkozy also designed the initiative to offer Turkey an alternative to possible EU membership as France was fundamentally opposed to the possibility of Turkish accession to the EU. (Source: Ibid, 321.) Spain joined Germany in voicing opposition to a Mediterranean Union that was not part of existing EU frameworks and excluded non-Mediterranean member states; realizing that such a union would in fact be dominated by French interests to the detriment of wider European concerns. (Source: Wodka, 153.) Under pressure from other member states, Sarkozy eventually agreed to a union that would include all EU members that would indeed represent the interests and concerns of the European community in its entirety, and thus the UfM was born.

Michael Reiterer argues that the formation of the UfM within the institutional framework of the Barcelona Process represents the successful ‘Europeanization’ of a French national project and is a “triumph for institutionalism.” (Source: Reiterer, 328.) While lofty French leadership ambitions were thwarted by such a ‘Europeanization’ of the project, Therese Carolin Tasche argues that France has continued to make use of the UfM for uniquely French purposes. Sarkozy took credit for the creation of the UfM as a success of France’s EU Presidency and has used its inaugural co-presidency of the UfM to increase French diplomatic presence in international affairs, particularly in the Arab-Israeli conflict. (Source: Tasche, 68.) Tasche also states that the six major projects of the UfM largely reflect the original French proposals over energy, education, and trade policies. (Source: Ibid.) This sentiment is reflected by Stephanie Colin who reiterates that UfM skeptics still perceive the union’s priority projects to primarily benefit “large French business operators,” rather than concerned partner countries. (Source: Colin, 2.) France’s continued dominance over the UfM can also be attributed to divergence of regional priorities for different EU member states. The importance of the Mediterranean region has been traditionally championed by France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. (Source: Wodka, 148.) What is now referred to as the ‘eastern partnership’ has generally been a concern of member states like Germany, Austria and the UK; and more recently, Poland and Sweden, who jointly proposed the aforementioned ‘eastern partnership’ in response to France’s UfM push. (Sources: Reiterer, 316 & Wodka, 154.)

Ahmed Driss and Erzsébet Rózsa both point to institutional asymmetries between the EU and the southern Mediterranean states. Driss states that the EU, “has at its disposal internal mechanisms that permit it to coordinate the positions of its various member states and thus speak in a unified voice [..].” (Source: Driss, 3.) In comparison, the states on the southern shores of the Mediterranean have no common voice. Rozsa states, “ […] the reception of any proposal from the north [EU], be it common or different, could differ from country to country. (Source: Rozsa, 11.) This dichotomy is most glaringly obvious in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its functional constraints on the UfM. (Source: Ibid.) Driss further argues that the coordination mechanisms within the Arab world itself do not function properly, making the framework of co-presidency in the UfM complicated, uncoordinated, and victim to “political instrumentalization.” (Source: Driss, 3.)

Tony Barber, in an editorial in The Financial Times on June 1, 2010 lambasted the UfM’s ineffectiveness and declared the union irrelevant. This bold statement and condemnation of EU foreign policy was a reaction to the postponement of the UfM’s 2010 summit, originally scheduled for July, due to Arab opposition and anger at Israel over the Gaza Flotilla incident. The UfM had also previously suspended high level meetings in 2009, again due to Arab anger at Israel, over its war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. (Source: Tony Barber, “EU’s Union for the Mediterranean drifts into irrelevance,” Financial Times, June 1, 2010, accessed April 13, 2011, “ […] the UfM turned out to be a hostage to decades-old political tension in the Middle East [..] The whole point of the UfM is that is supposed to steer clear from politics and concentrate on uncontroversial projects […].” (Source: Ibid.) In addition to the Arab-Israeli conflict, regional conflicts between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara and the suggested divisive effect of the UfM on the Joint Africa-EU Strategy introduce political obstacles to the union’s effectiveness. (Source: Colin, 2.) These examples underscore the claims made by Rósza and Driss. Driss further defines the problem of politicization of the UfM as “linkage politics.” (Source: Driss, 4.)

Interest in the UfM, both by EU member states and Mediterranean partner countries has significantly waned. Tasche points to the UfM ministerial meeting in Cairo in January of 2010 where it was clear that that the general atmosphere demonstrated little interest or engagement on behalf of European members states; largely due to the Eurozone crisis and Greece. (Source: Tasche, 68.) Driss also points to specific national ambitions on the part of Mediterranean partner states seeking to advance their status and cooperation with the EU through the ENP and potential Advanced Status negotiations; in particular Morocco and, at the time, Tunisia. (Source: Driss, 5.) Kausch and Youngs argue that the UfM, “dilutes the political character and thrust of the EMP vision.” They claim the UfM is “expressly designed” to shift the focus of relations between the EU and North Africa away from politically sensitive areas. (Source: Kausch and Youngs, 964.) Unlike Reiterer who argues that the UfM can be seen as the “deepening” of the EMP, Kausch and Youngs state that the UfM “rolls back” the EMP’s acquis on human rights and democracy. (Source: Reiterer, 329.) The UfM merely represents a shift of from seeking a “ring of well governed states” to a “ring of firmly governed states.” (Source: Kausch and Youngs, 967.) In contrast, despite problems, the bilateral approach of the ENP has offered some Mediterranean partner states, “some concrete gains in specific sectors of cooperation that have been liberated from linkage to the problematic regional context.” (Source: Ibid, 965.)

Wodka joins Kausch and Youngs in the pessimistic view of the future of the UfM stating that it is “doomed to failure” as it will not meet the expectations of either EU members states or partner countries; agreeing with Tasche that it remains fundamentally a French, not an EU, project. (Source: Wodka, 155.) Roberto Aliboni offers a different perspective. He argues that the UfM can be saved from irrelevance; but not without significant institutional revisions. (Source: Roberto Aliboni, “The State of Play of the Union for the Mediterranean in the Euro-Med Context,” (paper prepared for the Instituto Affari Internazionali of Rome, 2010) 8.) Aliboni echoes Driss’ criticisms of the co-presidency feature of the UfM but also criticizes the structure of the Secretariat. Six additional deputy Secretaries were created under the Secretary-General; which has made the structure overly cumbersome, “especially for an organization as poorly financially endowed as the UfM.” (Source: Ibid, 7.) Ultimately, Aliboni argues that the UfM should divorce itself entirely from trying to defend the Barcelona acquis. This instead should be dealt within the context of the ENP by creating a “significant multilateral component” within that policy. The UfM should solely be concerned with large scale regional projects. (Source: Ibid, 8.)

(Editor Note: Stay tuned Sunday for Part 3 of Alec’s analytical review of the Arab Spring from the other side of the Mediterranean…)

Alec Simantov is a graduate student at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy and will be beginning a research assistantship at the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Washington office in September with a focus on international governance and democracy.

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