In the past year, democratic uprisings in the southern Mediterranean have overthrown some regimes, threatened others, and consigned to the dustbin pessimistic perceptions about the prospects for democracy in the region. While civil movements are still struggling to transform national political landscapes, it is clear that north Africa and the Middle East will not be the same again.
The unrest has also transformed the region from an American and European domaine réservé into a multipolar neighbourhood, in which Turkey and the Gulf states – to name just a few – are vying for influence.
For the EU, this test arrived at a tricky moment, in the midst of the eurozone crisis and with the foreign-policy machinery established by the Lisbon treaty still in its infancy. Nonetheless, European institutions have responded with some remarkable financial, technical and political instruments.
The EU has revised its neighbourhood policy (though that update was already under way). It has found extra money to support democracy. It has created the European Endowment for Democracy and the Civil Society Facility to help build democratic institutions and support civil society. And it has promised to liberalise trade and ease travel.
The EU has also has set up a number of task-forces to co-ordinate action on the ground and has appointed a special representative for the region, Bernardino León.
These initiatives have worn the label either of the European Commission or of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Member states, by contrast, have been remarkably absent from the responses emerging from Brussels, preferring to pursue separate national policies. This was evident when the EU failed to adopt united positions on the military intervention in Libya and on Palestine’s bid for recognition of its statehood at the UN.
Nor has there been much strategic debate in Brussels and in national foreign ministries.
Contrast this with the situation in 2003, when Javier Solana, then the high representative for the common foreign and security policy, responded to divisions over the war in Iraq by persuading national leaders to adopt a common global security strategy.
Solana’s approach should now be emulated for the southern Mediterranean. In essence, the EU’s member states and institutions need to set out a strategic narrative that defines the EU’s values, its interests in the region and the political framework for EU policies.
The main building blocks are available, in the form of the political messages of recent communications produced by the Commission and the EEAS. These include support for democracy, economic development and civil society.
But some elements should be made more explicit. The EU should, for example, state that the outcome of free and fair elections should be respected regardless of who wins. It should declare that the EU wants a systematic, structured dialogue with Islamist parties, which have emerged strengthened from recent elections. It needs to set out the various ways in which bilateral relations could develop. It should set out the role that Euro-Mediterranean institutions should have. Is there a value in continuing the multilateral, region-wide track embodied by the Union for the Mediterranean? And it should define a new approach to Turkey: the current impasse over its accession to the EU should not continue to preclude broader co-operation.
To persuade member states, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, would need to show reinvigorated leadership. Even then, she would struggle to secure agreement. The economic crisis limits funds, and the EU’s institutional crisis reduces the chances that the 27 member states will muster the political will needed.
But Arab democrats need straightforward answers from the EU. And a southern strategy would be a major stepping stone toward a revision of the global strategy set out by Solana, which has been revised just once in eight years, in 2008.
Pol Morillas is the co-ordinator of Euro-Mediterranean policy studies at the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed).