Europeans managed a respectable initial response: they got themselves smartly on "the right side of history" during the Arab Spring. But 18 months on, there is less cause for satisfaction, say Nick Witney and Anthony Dworkin.
Nick Witney and Anthony Dworkin are the authors of ECFR’s Power Audit on EU-North Africa relations.
"In 2011, the democratic wave sweeping the Arab world looked unstoppable. Not so in 2012. The Syrian revolution has descended into a bloody civil war. In Egypt, the manoeuvres of the "interim" military rulers have underlined that decapitation of an autocratic regime may be only the first step in eradicating it.
In Libya, despite successful countrywide elections to a new national assembly, power continues to reside with heavily armed regional militias.
Even in Tunisia, where the democratic transition has seemed to advance most smoothly, national unity and euphoria have been overlaid with polarisation and disillusion.
The scale of the post-revolutionary challenges – achieving national political consensus, creating jobs and growth, restoring law and order – is daunting.
Europe’s attitude, too, has moved on. The initial uprisings were a profound shock not only for their unexpectedness, but for how they destroyed the Faustian pact which had long been the real basis of European policy across the Mediterranean – quiet European complicity with the autocracies, in exchange for their cooperation in keeping their teeming populations and disturbing religion at arm’s length.
Europe managed a respectable initial response: they got themselves smartly on "the right side of history", were largely forgiven their past complicity with the old autocrats, and, led by Brussels, converged on a common policy.
But eighteen months on, there is less cause for satisfaction. The EU’s focus on the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) as the main vehicle for its response (with the important exception of the military intervention in Libya) looks increasingly like displacement activity before normal politics are resumed.
The chastened mood in the capitals of Europe’s Mediterranean states, and concomitant readiness to follow a Brussels lead, is also on the wane.
The "big three" – Italy, France and Spain – have substantial national interests at stake, in trade, investment and energy links. They host the biggest North African immigrant communities and worry about radicalisation and terrorism.
And they can draw on assets – ties of history, culture and language, and military links – of which Brussels does not dispose. They can put the brake on any EU aspiration to allow greater access to Europe, whether for North African people or goods.
Brussels is operating a policy that grinds too slow and too small. It has embarked on a technocratic programme, rather than responding to a political earthquake with big strategic opportunities at stake.
Thus, preoccupation with how to fine-tune levels of financial assistance in light of progress with detailed "action plans" for reform crowds out the big issues such as how to make use of Egypt’s need for macroeconomic assistance to influence the country’s political development, or whether Morocco is really moving towards democracy at all.
"Deep and Comprehensive" free trade arrangements are proposed, as though the countries of North Africa need an arduous, protracted economic makeover to fit them for eventual entry to the EU’s single market rather than urgent, near-term improvements to their ability to export to the EU.
And, because the ENP sees each of the 16 neighbours as an individual "client", the policy sells short the vital need to foster intraregional cooperation.
The ENP is the European Commission’s instrument and therefore focuses on the Commission’s, essentially economic, tools.
It thus undervalues the ways in which Europe could lend diplomatic, political and security support to the "Arab Spring" in North Africa – ways which would also be more effective in embedding European influence, and promoting regional integration.
Beyond the ENP: What Europe should do in North Africa
Instead of focusing on "conditionality" or "more for more", the EU and its member states should develop real political strategies. They must arrive at shared, country-specific policies to foster democratic progress while accommodating both local realities and the different interests, and influence, of EU member states in the different North African states.
This will require Brussels to work harder to understand the priorities of key member states – France, Spain and Italy in particular – and to get them actively to support agreed strategies.
Europe should promote intraregional cooperation. Autocrats prefer closed societies and over the years Brussels has indulged them by treating North African states as individual clients.
The countries of the region have been largely insulated from each other, with minimal mutual trade or other exchange. Yet intraregional interaction is a key to growth, and to both economic and political democratisation.
Shared security concerns are already producing new regional dialogues. And Europe is in a unique position to shape this process.
Sahel instability preoccupies all North African governments – and France too. So the EU has a huge and largely neglected opportunity to offer practical support while embedding European influence, through the CSDP.
Trust built through cooperation on countering lawlessness in the Sahara and the Sahel could lead on to the major prize of European involvement in security sector reform.
To exert collective weight, it is vital to close the gap between the way Brussels presents itself to North Africa – as a big NGO, with delegations functioning mainly as development project managers – and the profile of individual member states as traditional powers.
Brussels and the member states need to work together to treat North Africans as partners rather than as clients, encouraging them to engage on regional problem-solving.
If Europe fails to develop a more substantive and genuinely collective strategy, mutual disillusion across the Mediterranean seems all too predictable. The risk is of reversion to old habits, whereby Brussels preaches on democracy and human rights, the member states pursue their short-term national interests, the North African countries note and exploit the hypocrisy, and European authority and influence fade.
The moment is fragile, and Europeans need to respond by raising their game, not relapsing into business as usual. Accepting the constraints of their current economic problems, there is still much they can do to ensure that they do not fumble an historic opportunity."