The European Union's focus on the European Neighbourhood Policy as the main vehicle for its response looks increasingly like displacement activity before normal politics are resumed – claim Nick Witney and Anthony Dworkin
Some 18 months on from the start of the Arab uprisings in Tunis and Cairo, the view across the Mediterranean is sombre. The region is gripped by economic crisis, with at least one state in real danger of collapse. Illiberal forces are feeding on popular discontent and insecurity. New institutions are struggling to establish their authority. And that is just Europe.
Certainly, the Arab uprisings could not have caught Europe at a worse time. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini may have called for a "new Marshall Plan" but there was never the slightest chance that Europeans would match the courage of the young revolutionaries with the generosity of their response or that they would mobilise support on a scale commensurate with the historic opportunity. Nonetheless, caught out in their complicity with the old regimes, Europeans at least had the grace to blush and place themselves smartly "on the side of history". They began to make some material amends. Unusually, the response has so far been largely Brussels-led with the major exception of the military action in Libya. But this Brussels-led European response is unsustainable.
The European Union's focus on the European Neighbourhood Policy as the main vehicle for its response looks increasingly like displacement activity before normal politics are resumed. Consolidation of democratic reform in North Africa is hugely in Europe's interest. If more open and dynamic societies take root, a region long viewed as a threat will offer Europeans new economic openings and major strategic opportunities. These could tackle the perennial problems of migration and radicalisation, help to pursue regional problem-solving and grow European influence across the Middle East. A new agenda could even build a healthier relationship with the wider Islamic and Arab worlds.
One issue that is mostly overlooked in this context is the need for more regional cooperation in North Africa – undoubtedly an area in which Europe has a fair share of expertise to offer. Autocrats prefer closed societies and over the years Brussels has indulged them by treating North African states as individual clients – and the ENP seems to be a continuation of this strategy. The countries of the region have been largely insulated from each other with minimal mutual trade or other exchanges. The Mediterranean world is structured on a north–south cardinality; in the absence of adequate east–west transport and energy infrastructure, Morocco imports electricity from Spain while the Algerian-Moroccan border remains shut. Yet intra-regional interaction is key to growth and to both economic and political democratisation.
Encouraging mutual economic opening will also help embed democracy. High levels of protection have bolstered the deep state and European companies have often found themselves allowed to invest only on condition of taking a nominated local joint venture partner. Dismantling such systems of patronage and clientelism needs to be recognised as vital to the success of the Arab Spring as the dispersal of political power. Regional security can also be assured only on a regional basis - as the governments of North Africa now clearly recognise. So how Europe can promote regional cooperation? Europeans should support a Tunisian-led effort to revive the Arab Maghreb Union by offering advice and the prospect of an institutional relationship with the EU - ideally associating Egypt too.
European Union aid should focus on the promotion of regional integration instead of following rigid country-specific programmes. And the promotion of major regional projects – such as solar power development – would not only boost regional cooperation but also help the northern side of the Mediterranean. Most importantly, the EU needs to rethink the inappropriate 'deep and comprehensive' approach to trade relations, offering instead the possibility of a customs union to stimulate intra-regional as well as trans-Mediterranean trade. Bilateral deals will do nothing to promote intra-regional trade.
On the contrary, they will reinforce the classic Eurocentric hub-and-spoke model in which all roads lead to Brussels and, by encouraging some economies to move closer to Europe faster than others, may actually inhibit regional integration. Europe could also offer to mediate the Western Sahara dispute or find ways to move aside this roadblock to better Algeria – like Morocco relations. Achieving a settlement of the Western Sahara dispute is fundamental to any major breakthrough on Maghrebian integration.
For decades, the particular interests of France and Spain in maintaining close ties to the Moroccan royal court and in fishing rights in the seas off the disputed territory have led the EU to keep its head down and hide behind the United Nation's efforts at mediation. It is now time for Brussels to explore with Paris and Madrid, and perhaps with Washington too, how an EU effort at mediation could be launched with those capitals' support. The situation in North Africa is fragile and could easily slide back. The EU has successfully rebuilt some credibility, in the eyes both of the region and its member states – but it is in danger of losing both. And the opportunity is too important to waste for a lack of attention or urgency.
Nick Witney and Anthony Dworkin are senior policy fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank and authors of the report A power audit on EU-North Africa relations