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The EU is still looking backward at Its southern neighbours

Since January 2016, Carnegie Europe has asked authors from Europe’s Southern neighborhood to give candid assessments of the EU’s foreign policy toward their countries writes Judy Dempsey. The analysts from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, and Tunisia also had the task of ranking the EU’s policy in their countries on a scale from “irrelevant” to “helpful.” In all but two cases—Palestine and Libya, in which the union’s approach was deemed “unconstructive”—the EU was viewed as “confused.”

These assessments should send warning signals to Brussels and to individual EU countries. By now, the EU and its member states should have a clear idea what policies they can or cannot adopt toward a region that in terms of size, economic potential, and strategic relevance is just as important as Europe’s Eastern neighbours. But the war in Syria, the huge influx of refugees and migrants reaching Europe, and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have in turn created a sense of confusion in Europe about how it sees the lands beyond the Mediterranean.

Indeed, the letters from Damascus and Tripoli showed how the EU is reaping its abysmal failures in Syria and Libya, no thanks to NATO’s intervention in the latter and Western indecision—if not indifference—in the former.

Building walls to keep out migrants and subcontracting the refugee problem to Greece and Turkey are no substitutes for either a short-term or a long-term policy toward any of the North African and Middle Eastern countries. Nor are such decisions any excuse for Europe’s previous and current myopic policies in the region.

On the ground, the authors shared a common perception of the EU. Whether in Jordan or Palestine, Morocco or Algeria, they argued that the EU is too timid in promoting human rights and genuine political reforms. Writing from Amman, Ahmad Masa’deh bemoaned the fact that “in the domain of political development and reform, including the creation of a proper system of political parties and democratization, EU programs have not delivered much and have been limited in their impact.”

Palestine falls into the same category. There, the EU has channeled billions of euros to the Palestinian Authority but has had no impact on nurturing democracy, which the corrupt authority has never wanted to champion. As for the ever-increasing expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land in the West Bank, the EU has been completely ineffectual. Its support for a two-state solution is now just rhetoric. Indeed, writing about Palestine, Raja Khalidi asked if EU aid and economic peace were not “merely substitutes for rights and justice.” In other words, is the EU doing some of Israel’s bidding?

The way the EU distributes aid and treats civil society in these countries also came in for much criticism. Several of the authors pointed out that stability seems more important to the EU than the unpredictability of political reform and democracy that followed the 2011 Arab Spring.

Egypt is a prime and depressing example of this policy. Leaders “turn a blind eye to increasing repression and human rights violations in Egypt, assuming that the government in Cairo will be able to maintain stability by following a firm security policy,” argued Nancy Okail. In a nutshell, “EU support for and cooperation with Egypt is skewed toward security and the military.” Wasn’t that the policy the EU pursued before the Arab Spring: propping up dictatorships and authoritarian regimes at the expense of supporting human rights?

In his letter from Rabat, Aboubakr Jamai exposed the dilemma facing the EU in his country. Because Morocco’s monarch is a “good team player on security issues such as fighting terrorism, and displays some of the trappings of democratic transition,” that seems good enough for the North African country’s EU supporters, particularly France.

Next door, in Algeria, the EU must surely recognize the fragility of the regime, whose long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is ill and whose security forces are determined to prevent any threat from the so-called Islamic State from destabilizing the country. Again, for France in particular, the stability of Algeria is a priority. Yet Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck argued that civil society activists want the EU to foster political reforms, something that Brussels is not doing. “EU policy not only excludes non-state actors . . . but also leaves the management of funds to the ruling political elite, which chooses what it deems to be legitimate (in reality, co-opted) civil society representatives,” she wrote.

When the EU does support independent civil society movements, as it does in Tunisia, Walid Haddouk sensed that the EU thinks it knows best. For example, proposals to donors must be submitted in either French or English, even though Tunisia’s official language is Arabic. This may seem a frivolous complaint for bureaucrats in Brussels. But as Haddouk argued, this insistence “constitutes a major obstacle for many local civil society organizations that are keen to access EU opportunities but do not have sufficient command of either of these two languages.” He also suggested that many Tunisians consider EU support for local civil society “an attempt by Europeans to exercise cultural hegemony.”

The conclusions to be drawn from the authors are twofold. First, the EU was ill-equipped and too slow to react to the Arab Spring. Where democracy is trying to take root, the EU is cautious, to say the least. Yet transitions to democracy are highly complex, as the EU sees in its Eastern neighborhood.

Second, terrorism and migration are influencing the EU’s perceptions of the region to such a degree that the union is prepared to defend stability and turn a blind eye to repression at the expense of the many who are struggling for human rights.

Altogether, a depressingly shortsighted if not backward-looking view of the EU’s Southern neighbours.

Judy Dempsey is a non-resident senior associate at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe. This article was first published by Carnegie europe. more information can be found at

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