The Arab Spring uprisings of 2010-11 sparked hopes amongst many Europeans that their neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) were on their way to becoming more democratic, prosperous and stable. Almost ten years on, these hopes have largely evaporated. With a few exceptions, notably Tunisia, the EU’s southern neighbours are no more democratic than they were prior to 2011. Moreover, many countries in the region are more unstable than ten years ago, and they are seen in Europe as a source of unwanted migrants and terrorism. Civil wars have been raging in Syria since 2011 and Libya since 2014. Terrorist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State (IS), have proliferated amidst war, social discontent and poverty. Europe’s perception of its southern neighbours as a source of instability was heightened by the 2015-16 migration crisis, which resulted in over one million people entering the EU. This crisis contributed to the UK’s vote for Brexit, fuelled the rise of populist anti-immigration forces across Europe and deepened political divisions between member-states.
The EU’s approach towards its neighbours in the MENA region has failed to foster security, stability and prosperity since the 2011 Arab Spring. The Syrian conflict has devastated the country and severely weakened neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan. Libya, persistently unstable since the Western-backed overthrow of long-time ruler Gaddafi in 2011, has been mired in civil war for six years. Meanwhile, in Egypt and Algeria, poverty, corruption and authoritarianism are fuelling social unrest under a thin veneer of stability. Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Morocco, are the only bright spots in the region. Tunisia has been a democracy since 2011, and has sought to build closer relations with the EU. However, its economic growth has been weak and its democracy remains fragile. Throughout the region, extremists thrive on poverty, high unemployment and political polarisation, which also fuel migration towards Europe.
The EU’s relationships with most of its neighbours are based on ‘Association Agreements’, which include trade agreements. These agreements are focused on tariff reductions for industrial goods. Though most of the countries have large agricultural sectors, the agreements do not liberalise trade in agricultural goods, although the EU has implemented ad-hoc reductions of tariffs and quotas on these. The EU is also in the process of negotiating Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) with Morocco and Tunisia. These are much broader trade agreements that involve regulatory and legal approximation to the EU’s acquis, the elimination of non-tariff barriers and the adoption of EU product standards – meaning that producers in many sectors will be able to export more easily to the EU and to the many countries that accept EU standards. Trade liberalisation is asymmetric, with partner countries maintaining protective measures over a transition period, while the EU removes them up front. Moreover, by adopting EU rules, countries should also be able to attract more foreign investment.
Countries in the MENA region vary widely in terms of the depth of their economic links to the EU. The countries in the Maghreb have deep links to the EU – particularly Morocco and Tunisia – which depend on the European market for around two thirds of their goods exports and are large recipients of EU development assistance. Like Tunisia, Morocco has long aligned itself with the EU in foreign policy. It is one of the EU’s closest partners in the MENA, and a rare example of stability in the region. Europeans view Morocco as an important partner, not only economically but also for controlling migration flows and countering terrorism. A strengthening of EU-Morocco relations is possible, but will require significant political commitment on both sides. In contrast, countries in the Middle East have looser economic ties with Europe. Even Israel and Egypt, which have substantial trading relationships with the EU, are not greatly dependent on trade with Europe, as they also trade extensively with other countries. Finally, Jordan, Palestine and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon receive substantial EU assistance but have a very low volume of trade with the EU.
The EU’s ambition to be more ‘geopolitical’ should start close to home. The EU’s approach towards countries to its south has had limited success in meeting its goals of fostering security, stability and prosperity. The Union’s southern neighbours remain unstable, poor and often authoritarian, with high levels of unemployment and corruption, all of which fuels migration towards Europe. The EU’s focus on co-operating with neighbours to counter terrorism and migration, and its de facto support for authoritarian governments, have failed to promote genuine stability and economic growth. The EU’s political and economic offer to its neighbours is measly, and fails to incentivise either closer co-operation or reforms. North African and Middle Eastern neighbours are not offered the chance of becoming EU members and support is limited to financial assistance and a modest upgrade of trade ties.
Additionally, the EU’s approach has not been strategic: the Union has provided relatively little support to neighbours like Tunisia, where efforts to promote reform stood a good chance of being successful, while providing substantial unconditional economic assistance to authoritarian regimes such as Egypt. Meanwhile, Europe’s weak security footprint has failed to halt widespread instability and conflict, and enabled the rise of terrorist groups. Europeans have been sidelined in the Syrian conflict, and now also in Libya. Member states have often been divided, making a common European response impossible. At the same time, other actors, such as China, the Gulf states, Iran, Russia and Turkey have gained influence at the EU’s expense. Libya now risks being partitioned between Turkish and Russian spheres of influence.
The Covid-19 pandemic will greatly increase economic difficulties for the EU’s neighbours, fuelling social discontent, political polarisation, extremism and potentially conflict. The EU should not think it can insulate itself from instability in its neighbourhood. Instability could directly threaten Europe if it leads to a rise in extremism and the resurgence of a terrorist state like IS. Increasing numbers of people will try to reach Europe, searching for better lives for themselves and fleeing from poverty, climate change and conflict. This will potentially fuel the growth of populist anti-immigration and anti-EU forces in Europe, and further weaken the EU itself. If Europe does not help its neighbours in dealing with the health and economic consequences of the pandemic, and rethink its policy towards the neighbourhood, it will simply be creating greater challenges for the future.
But the EU should not lose sight of the long-term picture. If Europeans want their neighbourhood to be stable, they need to take more responsibility for its security. They should, for example, be much more proactive in Libya, agreeing on a common strategy, trying to obtain a ceasefire and providing troops for a peacekeeping mission once a ceasefire is struck. The EU should make the countries in its southern neighbourhood a more ambitious offer: deeper market access, more opportunities for their citizens to work in Europe and more financial and technical assistance. The EU should also develop an associate membership model for democratic countries in the region that would be eligible for membership were it not for their geographic location. At the same time, the Union should target its financial assistance more strategically, pushing countries to respect human rights and align with its foreign policy goals, and reducing support if they refuse.
‘Rethinking the EU’s Approach Towards Its Southern Neighbours’ – Policy Brief by Luigi Scazzieri – Centre for European Reform / CER.