The Arab Spring, Europe, and the Middle East: everything changes to stay the same

#CriticalThinking

Asia

Picture of Eva-Maria Maggi
Eva-Maria Maggi

Many European observers had initially hoped the Arab Spring would lead to similar democratic outcomes in the Middle East and North Africa as occurred in the 1990s across Central and Eastern Europe, but we now know it did not. According to Freedom House, the countries in the MENA region are less free now than they were before the protests began. Libya and Syria are de facto failed states, and Egypt is under military rule; Tunisia is the lone exception. Meanwhile, those regimes that stayed in power have pursued policies of repression, co-optation and cosmetic democratic reforms to maintain control while also avoiding censure from Europe.

The EU has not voiced criticism against this strategy nor has it become involved in a possible democratic reconciliation after the protests. Indeed, with very few exceptions, the before-and-after pictures of EU engagement are remarkably similar. This consistency in policy is mainly the result of political pragmatism, as Europe realises its neighbourhood policy can only be successful with the co-operation of MENA regimes. The EU and MENA countries maintain consistent trade and security interests, common concerns that remain stable despite changes in regimes.

The ongoing refugee crisis seems set to become a much more influential driver of the EU’s MENA policies than any changes resulting from the Arab Spring

Soon after the Arab Spring, a revamped European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) included a call for more political reforms across MENA in exchange for financial assistance and free trade, flanked by supporting civil society projects through the new Endowment for Democracy. These efforts remained merely cosmetic, and the European Commission was quick to call a public hearing on again reforming the ENP.  Just as before the Arab Spring, the EU has realised that if it wants to co-operate with the MENA regimes, its best to keep democracy on the back burner and co-operate in other policy areas as much as possible. Though pragmatic, this strategy has not burnished the EU’s credentials as a promoter of democracy.

The pressing question is whether the EU is ready to take democracy off the back burner; but the chances for forefront democracy promotion in MENA are slim. It’s more likely is that the European Commission will repackage existing strategies with the economic modernisation dogma that democracy comes automatically with trade and economic prosperity. This belief suits Jordan, Morocco and Egypt as well as it does the EU. But Europe’s security concerns of mass migration and terrorism are now so urgent that, at least in the short term, democracy promotion will likely end up in the lowest drawer of the policy cabinet yet again. MENA governments themselves, meanwhile, often lack a working government or police force with which they might help address these challenges.

The ongoing refugee crisis seems set to become a much more influential driver of the EU’s MENA policies than any changes resulting from the Arab Spring. Europe will see its most urgent policy priority as getting their southern Mediterranean neighbours to manage the flow of refugees. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – the countries hosting the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees – are in dire financial straits to keep their refugees camps running and liveable. While this continues, the EU is likely to relax political critiques and the conditions it attaches to financial assistance, sacrificing the EU’s most effective leveraging tool and negating any promotion of democracy.

Just as before the Arab Spring, the EU has realised that if it wants to co-operate with the MENA regimes, its best to keep democracy on the back burner

In the short term, this seems like the only reasonable option for the EU. But in the long run, it would be in the EU’s own best interest to keep up its democracy promotion efforts. Only a more democratic neighbourhood will bring about a safe neighbourhood, with working economies and living conditions attractive enough for people to stay. It will be impossible, though, for any one actor to achieve these results. Without a co-ordinated strategy with the United States, there is little chance that the EU will be able to successfully promote democracy or address its regional security concerns. Given the American public’s reluctance to take on greater responsibilities in the Middle East in the wake of the costly conflict in Iraq, the Obama administration has left the region’s many problems – some resulting from the Iraq war – to its European partners. The EU should try its best to get the U.S. back on board. The Iran nuclear deal showed that it can be done, and it will be exactly that level of EU-U.S. co-operation that will be needed to successfully address the current conflict in Syria.

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