April 18, 2011 10:31 pm

Europe: In need of a lifeline

Illegal North African immigrants wait to be transferred

Adrift: illegal north African migrants await transfer last month from Lampedusa, Italy’s most southerly island. Tens of thousands have been arriving on European shores seeking safety

A decade ago, European and Egyptian diplomats gathered in Luxembourg to sign a 355-page text intended to set their relations on a path to shared prosperity and stability. After more than five years of talks, contention focused on a single clause in the preamble in which parties pledged that “human rights, democratic principles and political and economic freedoms” would form the very basis of their association.

The Egyptians did not want to sign. But for the European Union, this represented a new feature for its regional agreements. With sustained pressure, the bloc eventually got its way.

The hollow nature of that 2001 diplomatic triumph reverberates today in the revolutions erupting across north Africa and the Middle East. Humbled by these events, European leaders have vowed to craft a new strategy to encourage democracy, good governance and better living standards for countries on their southern border. But in doing so, they are being rudely confronted by the failures of the past.

“We should be honest with ourselves in the European Union: we have spent billions of euros in European taxpayers’ money in aid to Egypt and other neighbouring countries,” David Cameron, UK prime minister, said at the height of the Egypt uprising in February as he bemoaned a succession of Mediterranean policies and partnerships that cost a lot but delivered few tangible successes.

For Europe, the urgency to get it right this time is apparent: pilots from EU member nations are flying bombing sorties over Libya in support of a ramshackle rebellion against Muammer Gaddafi, while tens of thousands of African and Arab refugees are turning up on its shores seeking safety.

More broadly, the bloc is fighting to retain its place on a world stage increasingly crowded by the likes of China, India and Brazil – and on which the US is seeking to take less of a leadership role. In an effort to bolster its global influence, the EU has just christened a pan-European diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, that is supposed to harmonise the dissonant foreign policy voices of its 27 member states.

EU map

EU map

Lacking US-style military muscle, the EU has instead emphasised its “soft power” through trade concessions, development aid and privileged ties to what is the world’s richest consumer market. That approach paid dividends in central and eastern Europe, where sustained investment helped to shepherd former communist countries along a path to democracy. But Europe’s experience to the immediate south, in a region known as the cradle of civilisations, may have revealed its limits.

An institution that was supposed to promote economic development and integrate a region of 750m people immediately became embroiled in intra-European, intra-Arab and Arab-Israeli disputes, and has made little progress towards achieving its aims. “Few people in the region even know of its existence,” wrote Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, in a recent article for the Financial Times.

Ana Palacio, former Spanish foreign minister, is among those who believe successive EU policies have failed because they were insufficiently frank about linking development aid to democracy – unlike the policies (and the funding) directed towards the post-Soviet nations of eastern Europe. “Unless we shift our priorities in the region toward good governance, democracy and human rights, and let our funding reflect those priorities, we risk losing momentum to support regional reforms,” she wrote in a recent paper. “Now is a rare opportunity for European leadership.”

With regional uprisings still playing out, European leaders have already gone back to the policy drawingboard. In March, they announced their latest Mediterranean initiative – the Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity.

Col Gaddafi was among those who expressed grave doubts about the Union for the Mediterranean, the latest incarnation of the EU’s policy for the south, when it was launched at the Grand Palais in Paris by Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, and other heads of state in July 2008. The UM, the colonel said then, was likely to follow the same course as the previous policy, “which failed and died, although it was not buried”. Less than three years later, he is struggling to retain his grip on Libya but his judgment about the UM, or Club Med as it has disparagingly come to be known, was prescient.

Analysts have given cautious praise to some of its features, such as giving more development money to those countries that embrace political reform and less to those that do not. They also like the idea of beefing up the role of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which was founded 20 years ago to finance eastern Europe’s transition to market-based democracy. Thomas Mirow, EBRD president, says it could begin lending to Egypt next year.

Cairo or Tunis in 2011 is not the same as Warsaw or Prague in 1989, policymakers caution. Still, Mr Mirow sees similarities in a young generation that wants to share the prosperity and values of its neighbours.

The partnership was drawn up at the behest of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, with input from Stefan Fule, enlargement commissioner. Its authors view it as being completely distinct from the UM. Although further details will not be published until next month, officials insist that it will attach tough conditions to aid – something requested by Mr Cameron.

. . .

Unfortunately, the EU has a long history of failed plans for the region. “There has been a traffic jam of European initiatives in the Mediterranean, but the well-being of the people has not improved,” says Bichara Khader, a consultant and professor at the Catholic University of Louvain.

Before the UM and the latest round of ideas, Europe tried the Global Mediterranean Policy in 1972, the Renewed Mediterranean in 1990, the Barcelona Process in 1995 and then the Neighbourhood Policy in 2004. The succession of policies reflects a persistently short-term approach to the region, according to Prof Khader, in which the EU has sought to maximise its exports rather than invest in a long-term partnership.

In 2009, the EU’s bilateral trade with the 10 countries along the southern Mediterranean – from Morocco to Turkey – totalled €224bn, or roughly 10 per cent of the bloc’s external trade. But goods flowing to Europe consisted almost entirely of oil and gas. “The Arab revolutions today are another face of the very limited success of the European partnership with the Mediterranean countries,” he says.

Other analysts, such as André Sapir at Bruegel, a Brussels think-tank, see a broader truth of European diplomacy: the EU has been able to influence nations that see membership of the European club on the horizon – as was the case with eastern Europe. But, Mr Sapir adds: “What we have not been very good at is how to deal with countries in the next circle – countries that are not going to become members, or at least not for a very long time.”

European officials saw the UM from the start as a case of grandstanding by the hyperactive French president. Some also viewed it as a cynical ploy to address Turkey, whose EU membership he staunchly opposed. “The idea for Sarkozy was: ‘This is an alternative basket into which we can throw the Turks’,” says one.

The original UM idea of a group of littoral states angered Germany and other northern EU members. That meant the inclusion of all EU members, including – perversely – those that border the Baltic, the Atlantic or the North Sea rather than the Mediterranean. French officials admit the initial failure to involve Germany created an “atmosphere of suspicion” that made agreement hard to reach.

Then there was the traditional bureaucratic infighting about how the institution would be governed and who would reap its spoils. After its headquarters were awarded to Barcelona, Malta demanded a satellite office. Last but not least was the political puzzle of how to overcome tensions between Israel and the Arab countries where diplomatic relations were scant or non-existent. “There were all sorts of Byzantine issues. It was completely ridiculous,” one European diplomat involved in the discussions recalls. “There was so much diplomatic energy being poured into this just to please the French.”

. . .

French officials deny the UM has been a total failure. The idea, they say, was never to create an institution that would respond to crises such as those in Tunisia or Egypt, but to develop practical projects in areas such as energy, transport and pollution control. Yet even Mr Sarkozy appeared to admit its shortcomings when he said this year that the Arab uprisings were a chance to rethink the initiative.

Long-term projects inevitably did nothing to meet the short-term economic needs that arose after the uprisings, says one senior diplomat in Paris, while Europe’s leaders are now reluctant to be seen rubbing shoulders with the heads of questionable regimes. “No European leader wants to be in the family snapshot with [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad – and the new leaders in the Arab countries that have had revolutions are not yet elected,” the diplomat says.

Many analysts, politicians and European officials agree that whatever structures are used, the EU’s Mediterranean strategy must address the need for quick and substantial economic help for post-revolutionary states such as Tunisia, and for an explicitly political approach even at the risk of offending authoritarian regimes. “The EU can’t get into a two-year discussion about its own bureaucratic structures when the region is changing so dramatically,” says Richard Youngs of Fride, a Madrid foreign policy think-tank. As for the UM, he says: “It’s being completely bypassed. If it’s going to be concerned it needs a political pillar added.”

Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, director of the Centre for International Relations and Development Studies (Cidob) in Barcelona, agrees that the pretence that organisations can deal with “practical things only” while ignoring politics has proved to be a fallacy. “All these attempts to say you should deal with technical things without dealing with the politics did not work.”

As war rages in Libya and unrest simmers or boils in the region from Morocco to Yemen, what is not in doubt is the need for a revitalised European approach to its “near abroad” (just 13km apart in the case of Spain and Morocco) on the southern side of the Mediterranean.

As the Paris diplomat remarks, no one can argue now against the importance of deepening Europe’s partnership with Mediterranean countries. Equally, however, Europe will have to come up with an imaginative solution to accompany the initial moves towards democracy, as it did with eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall.

“Then, Europe did a remarkable thing and offered the perspective of entry to the Union. That is not possible in the Mediterranean, but we have to find the equivalent in our system to give the money and resources needed to ensure that the revolutions do not come to mean unemployment and more violence.”

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