Why enlargement-lite will not save the Arab Spring

The European Union has a vital role to play in helping consolidate the transitions of the Arab Spring. But first they need to rethink their approach and develop a new foreign policy for the Southern neighbourhood: Enlargement lite will not work.  

Much of the rhetoric following the uprisings in Tunisia implied that a Berlin wall had collapsed in the Mediterranean and that the EU should fall back on its tried and tested model of transition to help its southern neighbours become democratic (in the same way that it reached out to the countries of central and Eastern Europe after the cold war). But rather than copying the legacy of 1989 – and offering an anaemic and underfunded copy of the enlargement process minus the benefit of membership – it is time for the EU to develop a more political and differentiated approach to its southern neighbourhood.

The big story of 1989 was about a “return to Europe” for countries that did not just want to deepen their links with the EU; they wanted to transform themselves to become the EU.  The Arab world – on the other hand – is being re-shaped by the intersection of three big trends – the global political awakening, the shift of power from East to West, and the long tail of the Great Recession – which are combining to change the political and economic landscape in ways that are challenging to the EU and its policy frameworks for building “deep democracy” and economic development.

After 1989, democratisation and westernisation went hand in hand.  When the countries of Eastern Europe threw off autocratic rule they wanted to join the West.  But now that Arab countries are democratising they are not turning towards the West.  In many ways they are going through a “second decolonisation”, emancipating themselves from Western client states in the same way that earlier generations freed themselves from Western rule. Although the revolutionaries themselves may have been using Facebook and working for Google, the politics they will unleash will be challenging for the West.  I do not think we will necessarily see fundamentalist islamists coming to power across the region, but I think in Egypt we can already see some of the challenges in the result of the referendum and some of the early moves on foreign policy.  It stands to reason that the “dignity revolutions” will not just be about emancipation from dictatorship, but also from Western rules and practices.

The economic picture is also challenging for the EU – showing the combined impacts of the great recession and the power shift.  It is clear that the optimism of the revolutions is already leading to an economic slump because of a collapse in tourist revenues, capital flight, and rising inflation.  Experts predict that GDP growth in non-oil countries will go from 4.5% growth in 2010 to a half percent fall in GDP in 2011. These economic problems – coupled with the underlying forces of demography, rising inequality, unemployment and corruption – could lead to a crisis of expectations that overwhelms the Arab spring.  But a cash-strapped European Union has responded underwhelmingly to the crisis, promising just €5.8 billion (when Egypt alone has over $80 billion of debt).  When the G8 met, Western powers promised a mere $10 billion while urging that the Gulf oil states give $10 billion and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank provide another $20 billion in loans. There are lots that the West and (particularly) the EU can do, from opening markets for agricultural products to helping with investment vehicles for SMEs and eventually moving towards a customs union, but the timid response so far will mean that other powers such as the GCC and China will probably play an ever more important role as an economic force in the region.

However, it is not just the threat of member states adopting a miserly approach to the promises they have made on money, markets and mobility that could make the EU underperform.  There is also a threat that we do not take advantage of the Arab revolts to rethink our approach to the neighbourhood.  The problem with the EU’s approach is that it is modelled on the approach to Eastern Europe where we were the main economic and political power; where countries were desperate to adopt our values; and where the end-goal of membership made it worthwhile to go through the painful process of transition.  None of these conditions apply in the southern neighbourhood.  The Commission’s strategies of 25th March are based on the model of enlargement-lite – where the EU signs action plans for reform with the countries on its periphery, monitors their performance and rewards their success with extra money, markets or mobility (“more for more”).  But the trouble with this approach is that is difficult to deliver and driven more by the needs of the European suppliers (the Commission bureaucrats who oversaw the enlargement process) than local demand.  The EU now has a chance to review its approach to the neighbourhood across 4 different dimensions:

  1. Real differentiation. There should be a few common elements in the approach to all of our neighbours: Upgraded political dialogue; support for free and fair elections (with all the tools that EU has developed); and support for civil society.  Beyond that we should look at countries on an individual basis and develop bilateral relations with them based on a short list of pressing needs. 
  2. Scrap the lengthy action plans. Given that none of the EU’s Southern neighbours will join the EU, it would make sense for the EU to abandon its approach which is based on lengthy action plans modelled on the membership process. In their place, the EU could sign a series of sectoral development strategies.  For one or two countries – maybe Moldova in the Eastern neighbourhood or Tunisia in the southern neighbourhood – it may make sense to develop a model of enlargement-lite.  In order to deliver this, the EU should radically change the make-up of its personnel in the region, and its spending priorities.
  3. Involve member states. To move from a bureaucratic to a political approach, the High Representative will need to find creative ways of linking the EU’s policies and approaches to those of the member states. This is politically sensitive as it is easy to alienate excluded member states and there are strong reasons not to want to allow the Eastern or Southern neighbourhoods to become the ‘chasse gardee’ of their closest neighbours.  One idea would be for Ashton to copy the model of the G8 set-up for Afghanistan, and ask each Foreign Minister to lead on a substantive area (e.g. Rule of Law, media reform, policing, election support) in some of the key countries.  It is also important to embrace some political symbolism. 
  4. Reach out beyond a ‘European’ Neighbourhood PolicyThe area surrounding the EU is moving from being a ‘European neighbourhood’ to a more multipolar one, where different political and economic models vie for attention.  In this more competitive environment, the EU still has much to offer but it is likely to maximise its influence by reaching out to other players such as Turkey, the United States and the GCC, and seeking to find institutionalised ways of working together. 

The destabilisation of Europe’s periphery puts the EU in a dramatically different position to the status it enjoyed at the end of the 20th Century. The EU is still the most significant source of trade and investment for all its neighbours to the south and east, but this is now a competitive rather than a ‘European neighbourhood’. The EU therefore needs to develop a real foreign policy, using national and collective sticks and carrots to support political transition and advance European interests. Let us hope that they put the current approach behind them and opt for a more radical rethink of our approach to the region.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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