Making sense of the EU`s response to the Arab Spring:


Making sense of the EU`s response to the Arab Spring:
Making sense of the EU’s response to the Arab
legitimizing discourses and EU foreign policy
practices at times of crisis
Paper prepared for the conference on ‘Change and Continuity in Transatlantic
Relations’ organized by the Swedish Network of European Studies in Political
Science (SNES) at Stockholm University,
Stockholm, 19-20 March 2015
Niklas Bremberg, Ph.D.
Swedish Institute of International Affairs
[email protected]
The events in North Africa and the Middle East unfolding as of 2011 and onwards, often
referred to as the ‘Arab spring’, have not only put into question previously held
understandings about the stability of authoritarian regimes in the region but also the European
Union’s relations with countries in its southern neighbourhood. Political transition in Tunisia,
instability in Libya and social and political unrest in Egypt (not to mention the protracted civil
war ravaging Syria and the emergence of ISIS) present the EU and its member states both
with threats (e.g. potential state failure in the immediate neighbourhood) and opportunities
(e.g. chance to enhance cooperation with closely situated countries in transition towards
democracy). The Union is grappling with the challenge of coming up with an appropriate
response to these challenges at a time when Europe’s economy is still struggling, and as if that
was not enough the foreign policy system of the EU is undergoing significant changes as a
consequence of the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty and the setting up of the European
External Action Service (EEAS).
These converging challenges imply that studying the responses to the Arab
spring serve as an excellent opportunity to explore questions such as the power of the EU and
its role in the Mediterranean region, although most analyses of the EU’s responses have thus
far been mainly descriptive (cf. Balfour, 2012; Behr, 2012; Peters, 2012, although see Pace,
2014; Youngs, 2014). This paper aims to shed light on a piece of the puzzle that is the EU’s
seemingly lack of appropriate responses to the Arab spring by analyzing EU foreign policy
discourse as practice. One of the main assumptions here is that discourse plays a crucial role
in shaping the EU’s relations with closely situated non-members although seen as meaningmaking activity it is not solely nor primarily confined to verbal or written enactments but
relies to a large extent on actors’ social dispositions and background knowledge. The basic
notion here is that the meaning of particular foreign policy choices or objectives cannot be
determined deictically without becoming aware of the pragmatic context in which actors are
embedded (Kratochwil, 2011).
This paper draws on recent advancement on practice theory in IR1 in an attempt
to uncover the practical understandings that have guided the EU’s initial responses to the
Arab spring, as well as analyze to what extent the responses have given rise to new ways-of-
For a recent overview of practice approaches in IR, see Bueger & Gadinger (2014).
doing things when it comes to EU’s policies and instruments towards the countries in the
southern neighbourhood. While there are certain similarities between what this paper seeks to
accomplish and for example Pace’s (2014) analysis of the role of prejudices in shaping EU’s
responses, the focus here is rather on the relationship between discourse and practice as well
as mapping the broader repertoire of practical understandings. In this sense, analyzing the
EU’s responses to the Arab spring should also be of wider theoretical and methodological
interest as it can be said to illustrate a recurrent problem in political science and IR, namely
explaining and understanding the tension between routine and innovation as composite
societal actors respond to crises.
The paper proceeds as follows. First, it discusses the analytical added-value of
practice approaches in the study of EU foreign and security policy in general and in particular
when it comes to analyzing the Union’s responses to the Arab spring. Second, it conducts a
reconstruction of the evolution of the EU’s policy framework towards non-member states in
the Mediterranean based on secondary sources as well as interview data from a previous study
(Bremberg, 2012) as a means to uncover the practical understanding from which EU
practitioners initially responded.2 Third, it analyzes speeches, statements and remarks by EU
officials in response to events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt during the period 2011-2013 in
order to trace to what extent the EU can be said to promote new ways of interacting with the
countries in North Africa in the wake of one the most profound challenges the Union has
faced in the region in the post-Cold War era.3
EU foreign policy as practice
In EU studies, explaining why, how and under what conditions the EU acts in international
politics usually draws upon a combination of rationalist and constructivist insights to address
the complexity produced by the divergence and overlaps of EU member states’ and
institutions’ preferences and capacities (Hill & Smith, 2011; see also Hill, 1993; Rosecrance,
1998; Bretherton & Vogler, 2006, etc.).4 From the 1990s onwards constructivist analyses of
Caveat #1: the interview data used in this paper draws from a set of interviews conducted mainly in Brussels,
Madrid and Rabat 2008-2010. A new set of interviews in Brussels are planned for the spring of 2015.
Caveat #2: Morocco and Algeria are to be included at a later stage of this research project.
In the most straight-forward rationalist answer, actors act to advance their (mostly) material interests in
response to environmental conditions they do not fully control (Arrow, 1994; cf. Simon, 1955). The standard
EU diplomacy and foreign policy have expanded considerably and have addressed core
themes such as norm convergence and socialization of national and EU diplomats (Smith,
2004; Meyer, 2005; Cross Davis, xxxx; Pomorska & Juncos, xxxx) as well as the role of
norms, identities and discourses in shaping EU external relations writ large (Manners, 2002;
Diez, 2014; etc). This paper aims to contribute to expanding constructivist research in EU
studies by suggesting how insights gained from practice approaches in IR can enrich the study
of the EU as international actor as well as shed light on the EU’s responses to the Arab
First of all, what is practice? While there is no unified theory of practice
(Schatzki, 2001:2), the starting-point here is that practices are best understood as socially
meaningful patterns of action which embody and possibly reify background knowledge in and
on the material world (Adler & Pouliot, 2011a:6).6 Action is thus a constitutive part of
practice, although it should be kept in mind that whereas action is specific and located in time,
practices are to be understood as general classes of action (which are situated in social context
although not limited to any specific enacting) (Adler & Pouliot, 2011a:6). The relationship
between practice and discourse has been, and will surely continue to be, widely discussed
within social science (cf. Doty, 1997; Swindler, 2001). For the purpose of this paper, suffice it
to say that practices are not to be seen as outside of or apart from discourses, although a focus
on practice seeks to account for non-verbal, extra-textual and unarticulated ways-of-doing
This is of particular interest here since Diez has recently argued that certain
discourse on the EU as a normative power in international politics function so as to both
advocating the pursuit of certain norms as well as providing the basis for which the
boundaries of an EU foreign policy discourse are constructed (Diez, 2014:329). At first sight,
it might seem that the argument is that certain discourses legitimize (and at the same time
delegitimize) certain actions for the EU in international politics, but Diez in fact argues that
any particular discourse is inherently unstable and that meaning can only temporarily be fixed
through ‘practices of articulation’ which draws upon ‘discursive tropes’ in concrete historical
and societal circumstances (Diez, 2014:325). While there is not necessarily anything wrong in
constructivist answer rather stipulates that actors act upon the logic of appropriateness, i.e. first asking who they
are and what kind of situation they are in before they act (Hopf, 1998; cf. March & Olsen, xxxx).
For other examples in a similar vein, see e.g. Bicchi (2011), Bremberg (2010).
For critical discussions on practice theory in IR, see Ringmar (2014), Chowdhury & Duvall (2011), Leander
(2011), Navari (2011).
this line of reasoning, the problem is rather that Diez says very little about how the fixation of
meaning actually works. Conversely, this is essentially what a focus on practice as socially
meaningful patterns of action seeks to accomplish (cf. Adler & Pouliot, 2011a:14).
To be sure, the study of background knowledge often needs to be conducted
through the study of articulated meaning (e.g. explicit rules, classifications, cultural codes,
metaphors, speech acts, representational practices) which leads to that the analysis of practice
shares many features in terms of research techniques with various versions of discourse
analysis.7 But as discourse analysts would treat documents and other textual artefacts as
‘monuments of discourse’, a focus on practice rather interprets them as artefacts which relate
to a social practice that is not the text itself but to which the text is related (Bueger, 2014).8
Practice (also when thought of in the form of discursive practice) is essentially about
performance and as such it has a distinct communal quality which means that it does not make
much sense to analyse practices as if they would be a kind of self-contained or trans-historical
activity/doing. Instead, the prime analytical locus should be directed towards ‘communities of
practice’ defined as: ‘like-minded groups of practitioners who are informally as well as
contextually bound by a shared interest in learning and applying a common practice’ (Adler,
2008:196; Wenger, et al. 2002).
The important point to be made in relation to the EU is that communities of
practice are not necessarily congruent with the: ‘reified structures of institutional affiliations,
divisions and boundaries’ (Adler, 2005:24; see also Adler, 2008; Pouliot, 2010, Bremberg,
forthcoming). For example, institutional (or even national) belonging might tell us little about
a practitioner’s dispositions and the EU’s institutions and transgovernmental networks serve
as social venues where practitioners from various member states get together on an every-day
basis to negotiate common positions (Lewis, 2005; Naurin & Wallace, 2009; Adler-Nissen,
2014; etc.). There is an obvious link to theories on norm diffusion and socialization, but
contrary to ‘standard’ constructivist accounts socialization, learning, and persuasion follow
rather than precede practice: ‘at best, they co-evolve’ (Adler & Pouliot, 2011b:23). To put it
Allegedly, practice also plays a critical role in Foucault’s work as it depicts: ‘language as discursive activity in
opposition to structuralist, semiotic, and poststructuralist conceptions of it as structure, system, or abstract
discourse’ (Schatzki, 2001:10; cf. Foucault, 1976).
For example, Wendt has pointed out that: ‘meanings depend on the practices, skills and tests that connect the
community to the objects represented in discourse’ (Wendt, 1999:176). Kratochwil also notes that: ‘the meaning
of the sentence “Castro is a communist” cannot be ascertained by some deictic procedure but by becoming aware
of the pragmatic context and the underlying practices, i.e. whether this utterance is used in a discussion of the
Politburo of the former CPSU, or in a briefing of the US president by the CIA director’ (Kratochwil, 2011:57).
differently: ‘it is practice that performs community and not the other way around’ (Nicolini,
Thus, norm internalization is not necessarily assumed to be a universal means to
ensure commitment to common standards (be they ‘European’ or other). It is rather assumed
that shared practical understandings of what can and should be done (e.g. as part of EU
foreign and security policy) evolve through social interaction even as actors’ understandings
of self and other(s) could remain unaltered. In a nutshell, what is of interest is whether actors
learn to do something in a new way, not necessarily that they change their identities.9 This is
not to say that focusing on practice is an endeavour completely oblivious to the workings of
power in social relations. But the power of practice primarily relies on the ways-of-doing
things that appear self-evident, since: ‘The order of things is established through the iterated
practices performed by capital-endowed agents, because their doing something in a certain
way makes the implicit but powerful claim that “this is how things are”’ (Pouliot, 2008:282).
This inevitably leads to the question of practice and change. While it is true that
practices must to some extent be understood as repetitive patterns, they are also: ‘permanently
displacing and shifting patterns’ (Bueger, 2014:9). A way of reconciling what might seem to
be two diverging positions (practice as routine vs. innovation)10 is to think of practices as not
only performing community but at the same time being nested in broader, overlapping
constellations or assemblages of practice, and that the tension within such constellations holds
the potential for transformation (Adler & Pouliot, 2011a:20-21).11 It is of course always tricky
to determine whether something apparently novel ‘really’ constitute change, although the
notion of overlapping constellation of practice suggests that change would often take the form
of broadening of a repertoire rather than clean cuts between old and new (cf. Adler & Greve,
For example, even though contemporary Europe counts as the ‘thickest institutional environment’ beyond the
nation-state studies of elite socialization in European regional organizations suggest that even though
socialization occurs it is in the form of: ‘minimal socialization, in which its effects are clearly secondary to
dynamics at the national level’ (Zürn & Checkel, 2007:260; Checkel & Katzenstein, 2009).
On the one hand, focusing on practice can be a means to understand how certain social orders are reproduced,
as in Bourdieu’s notion of practice as that which links habitus to social fields (e.g. Bourdieu, 1990). On the
other, in the pragmatist tradition studying practice is rather a way of understanding how actors change
dispositions and background knowledge through learning-by-doing (e.g. Dewey, 2012 [1921]).
We are therefore well-advised to think of practices: ‘much more like a dissonant pattern of voices in search of
a precarious point of alignment than a canon sung in unison by all those involved’ (Nicolini, 2012:94).
Theories of institutionalization and socialization in IR generally acknowledge the evolutionary character of
institutional, normative and ideational change (Checkel, 2007). However, the focus is often directed towards
Crises are particularly interesting to explore in the context of how practice
relates to routine and rupture, and especially so when it comes to EU foreign and security
policy as it has been shaped by bureaucratic requirements as much as by ‘events’ (Howorth,
2007). The argument is not that crises always bring political change, but rather that such
situations tend to evoke ‘the end of routine’ and might reveal the inherent instability of
practices (Hansen, 2011:281). This is interesting from a methodological viewpoint as implicit
knowledge tends to become articulated in crises as practitioners need to reflect upon whether
the situation can be dealt with by existing practices, whether adjustments are needed or
whether new practices are called for. Basically, actors are forced to justify what they are
doing, and: ‘Justification means that texts and representations of why a distinct practice
should be used are produced. In taking the justificatory texts and representations as a key
source and investigating how controversies are settled and closed we can learn more easily
about the background knowledge of practices’ (Bueger, 2014:14).13 In the end, studying crises
is a way of unveiling and clarifying dispositions that underpin the reproduction of certain
practices and thus: ‘introduce politics into the process’ (Leander, 2011:306).
How can these insights be used to shed light on EU’s responses towards the
Arab spring? First of all, focusing on practice provides an analytical vantage point to study
EU foreign policy discourse not only as a means to (somewhat abstractly) draw the
boundaries for what is possible to do in EU external action but rather as a discursive practice
which relies on shared practical understanding aimed at performing certain tasks among
communities of national and EU diplomats and officials. Beyond a much useful re-thinking of
how to study EU actions in the fields of diplomacy and foreign policy, a focus on practice
also invites us to put less theoretical effort on classification exercises (i.e. is the EU a civilian,
normative or some other kind of power?) and rather ask what are the iterated practices that
shape the Union’s relations with non-members. Basically, in order to understand why, how
and under what conditions the EU has responded to the events in North Africa we should start
by asking, not so much to what is the EU responding but from where does the EU draw its
responses. What are the shared practical understandings that EU officials use in order to make
sense of the Arab spring? What does the EU’s repertoire of practices to engage with nonexplaining an unambiguous outcome, as in success or failure of a certain process, but this might only serve to
obscure overlaps between past and future.
In temporal terms, a crisis is a situation where the present condition for some reason renders established waysof-doing things obsolete, as much as it would be the inability to come up with new ways of dealing with the
current situation. And yet, actors are forced to do something, even if it would only be to acknowledge that they
cannot do anything.
members in North Africa look like? How have these practices developed over time prior to
the events of 2011? Moreover, to what extent have the actions undertaken thus far led to new
practical understandings?
The construction of the Mediterranean region… from Brussels
The EU’s efforts at region-building in the Mediterranean are almost as old as the process of
European integration itself. At the heart of this process has been the European Commission’s
attempts at harmonizing the Union’s trade and aid relations with all Mediterranean nonmembers within a common framework, something which has been spurred by the need to
regulate commercial relation with former European colonies more or less simultaneously as
the Internal Market is being constructed (Pierros, et al., 1999; Woolcock, 2005).14 By the
1970s the ‘Mediterranean’ had become part of the official repertoire of the European
Community’s (EC) concept and labels, and it had also begun experimenting with diplomatic
measures such as political dialogue with Mediterranean non-members (Bicchi, 2007).
In the early 1990s, partly as a response to the southern enlargement of the EC in
the 1980s and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Commission
sought to reinvigorate the EC’s Mediterranean policy15 in ways that on the one hand stayed
true to the established practice of regulating economic relations with Mediterranean nonmembers (e.g. negotiating trade concessions with a number of important exceptions) but on
the other it: ‘suggested a new way of spending money, by promoting multilateral networks,
decentralized cooperation [as] a step toward the promotion of regionalism, as well as a more
neoliberal approach to development’ (Bicchi, 2007:155).
However, it was not until the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) (a.k.a. the
Barcelona Process) was launched in 1995 that a regional framework for cooperation between
EU member states and Mediterranean non-members in North Africa and the Middle East was
being shaped (see below). By then, a notion had taken shape among EU member states and
the Commission that something had to be done in order to strike a balance between promoting
The launch of the Global Mediterranean Policy (GMP) in 1972 was the first step and the logic of GMP was
premised on a vision of prospective developments in the Mediterranean non-member countries enhanced by
social provisions, financial and technical aid, and trade concessions provided by the EU (the EEC at the time).
In 1990, the Commission presented a Communication to the Council calling for a Renovated Mediterranean
Policy (RMP) based on an assessment of the advancements and shortcomings of the previous GMP framework.
the EU’s interests on its eastern and southern borders. It was clear that the EU was about to
embark on a process of enlargement which would threaten to shift the balance away from the
Mediterranean basin exactly at a time when issues such as economic stagnation, illegal
migration and the rise of radical Islamist movements in North Africa had started to gain the
attention of diplomats and officials in southern Europe (Ortega, 1995; Barbé, 1999).16
Interestingly, around this time EU officials and national diplomats started to
officially depict the geographical proximity and the ‘closeness of all types of relations’
between the EU and non-members around the Mediterranean basin as something that made
the stability and prosperity of Europe ultimately dependent on the stability and prosperity of
its southern neighbourhood. The Commission typically suggested that: ‘What is at issue is its
[the EU’s] security in the broadest sense’ (European Commission, 1990:2). In March 1992,
the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Francisco Fernández Ordóñez, described the situation
in the Maghreb in a report to his European colleagues as a ‘ticking time-bomb’ only to be
defused by promoting an enhanced ‘Euro-Maghreb Partnership’ (Hernando de Larramendi &
Mañe Estrada, 2009:76).17
Interestingly, most diplomatic initiatives to promote regional cooperation in the
early post-Cold War period were actually not launched as part of an EU-led exercise.18
Although unsuccessful these initiative had taught European diplomats valuable lessons. First,
direct U.S. involvement in any common European proposal towards the Mediterranean region
was likely to cause more problems than it would solve. Second, there was need for adding a
This kind of balancing between Europe’s peripheries is nothing new. For example, in the early 1970s, the
French President George Pompidou greeted the French-Hispanic rapprochement (after the signing of a military
agreement between the two countries) by stressing how important this was in order to: ‘équilibrer cette Europe,
en rendant plus évidente l’influence méditerranéene et latine’ (Pompidou quoted in Bicchi, 2007:89).
This was in line with the general shift in post-Francoist Spanish foreign policy towards the Maghreb, and
particularly Morocco, aiming to create a ‘cushion of common interests’ (colchón de intereses comunes) to
mitigate and reduce potential conflicts (Gillespie, 2000). The Spanish idea of a Euro-Maghreb Partnership was
picked up by the Commission and presented to the member states, which adopted it at the European Council
meeting in Lisbon in June 1992 (European Council, 1992). Echoing earlier policies, albeit with a few add-ons,
the framework for Euro-Maghreb cooperation was envisaged to be based on: ‘a free trade area, financial
cooperation, political dialogue, and region building… as a response to the challenges of migration, political
instability, security and development’ (Bicchi, 2007:163). Indeed, Spanish diplomats and policy-makers were
particularly influential in shaping the framework of Euro-Mediterranean relations at this time and Spain played a
similar role in shaping the EU’s approach to the Mediterranean non-members in the 1990s as France in crafting
the GMP in the 1970s. At the French-Hispanic summit in 1991, the French President François Mitterrand
graciously exclaimed that: ‘tout ne peut pas se faire de Paris’ (Mitterrand quoted in Bicchi 2007:161).
One such example was the Italian-Spanish project to launch a ‘Conference on Security and Cooperation in the
Mediterranean’ (CSCM) in 1991. The CSCM proposal was based on the CSCE/OSCE model of conflict
resolution and confidence building, organized around three ‘baskets’ (i.e. security, cooperation and human
affairs) (cf. Adler, 1998). However, it was a still-born initiative since the major European partners were at best
indifferent (France) or hostile towards it (the UK), but perhaps most importantly: ‘The United States was totally
against it’ (Bicchi 2007:158).
dimension that was missing from previous EU-promoted frameworks, namely, political and
security cooperation in a similar vein to what had been achieved within CSCE/OSCE.
Furthermore, in order to convince northern EU member states of the importance of pursuing
region-building projects, the geographical scope needed to be expanded to include not only
the Maghreb/North Africa but also the Middle East.
The EMP was launched in late 1995 during the second Spanish EU presidency
bringing together all fifteen EU member states and ten Mediterranean non-members.19 The
signatories of the Barcelona Declaration set out to establish a common area of peace and
stability and to create an area of shared prosperity as well as to promote understanding
between cultures (Barcelona Declaration, 1995). Moreover, peace, stability and security of the
Mediterranean region were described in terms of a common asset and while the respect for
universal human rights was written into the declaration it also stressed the need to respect
different political systems as well as for the principle of non-intervention as a way of assuring
all parties that the basis of the EMP would indeed be regional cooperation rather than
imposing ‘European values’.20 Within the EMP framework, Euro-Mediterranean Foreign
Affairs minister meetings were held on an almost yearly basis from the late 1990s until 2008,
which fostered a habit of getting together among diplomats from the participating states.21
But aside from the establishment of Association Agreements between the EU
and Mediterranean non-members progress on regional objectives has been slow, especially
when it comes to security and political matters.22 After 11 September 2001, EU member states
gradually shifted focus towards finding ways to cooperate with authoritarian regimes in North
Africa on issues such as counter-terrorism and migration rather than promoting regional
cooperation or democracy (Joffé 2008; Wolff, 2012). For example, the European Security
Strategy of 2003 evoked the notion of the Mediterranean as a region undergoing: ‘serious
The Mediterranean non-members at the time were; Algeria, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta,
Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority. Since 1995, the EU has been enlarged to include
28 member states (as of 2014), Cyprus and Malta have become EU members (in 2004), Turkey is candidate for
EU membership (since 2005) and Libya has been accepted as observer (in 1999).
Euro-Mediterranean regional cooperation was then stipulated to cover three so-called baskets: i) political and
security, ii) economic and financial, and iii) social and cultural (i.e. much like the CSCE/OSCE model). EU
officials as well as national diplomats from EU member states and Mediterranean partners were responsible for
setting up the meetings and updating the work programme of the EMP. Over time, relations between these
practitioners became quite informal (Aliboni & Ammor, 2009:9).
Interview #34 (General Secretariat of the Council of the EU). Interview #36 (Spanish Ministry of Foreign
Affairs). Interview #37 (Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Interview #54 (Moroccan Ministry of Foreign
Mainly owing to a host of unresolved conflicts in the Mediterranean region such as Israel-Palestine, Western
Sahara and Cyprus. However, EU-sponsored programmes on disaster management and crisis management have
been somewhat successful when it comes to promoting regional cooperation (Bremberg, 2010).
problems of economic stagnation, social unrest and unresolved conflicts’ (European Council,
2003:8). Furthermore: ‘The integration of acceding states increases our security but also
brings the EU closer to troubled areas. Our task is to promote a ring of well governed
countries to the East of the European Union and on the borders of the Mediterranean with
whom we can enjoy close and cooperative relations’ (ibid).
As the momentum in the EMP was slowly fading something else was emerging
on the horizon. Again, transformative dynamics within the EU set the premises for the
Union’s visions of its southern neighbourhood. In the run-up towards the Eastern
enlargement, the Commission proposed that the EU needed to develop a comprehensive
policy on aid, development and cooperation towards neighbouring states in order to prevent
the build-up of a ‘sharp delineation’ between EU members and closely situated non-members
of the expanding Union (Prodi, 2002). The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP)23 was
launched in 2004 and compared to previous policy framework towards the Mediterranean the
explicit focus on regulatory convergence between EU member states and non-members
constitutes a novel feature. However, EU legislation relating to the Internal Market had at that
time expanded significantly and seen from the perspective of the EU’s goal to harmonize
trade relations with non-members it makes sense to promote regulatory convergence in order
to address non-tariff barriers to trade. Democracy promotion can be said to be a goal within
the ENP although it is much more related to improving governance capacities among the
partner countries (which makes sense in relation to regulatory convergence).
The ENP is often taken as an example of how the EU has toned down its regionbuilding aspirations in the Mediterranean in favour of promoting a kind of hub-and-spoke
scheme instead (Del Sarto & Schumacher, 2005). There is of course something to such
claims, but it should be kept in mind that bi-lateral dynamics existed already within the EMP
as the Association Agreements and not the Barcelona Declaration provide the legal basis for
enhanced political cooperation. The EU also has sought to promote regional cooperation also
after the ENP, such as the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in 2008. The UfM was
originally a French proposal to re-vitalize Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, but it has thus far
failed to achieve this although it should perhaps be said that it had a particularly rough start
(e.g. the 2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza and subsequent Arab protests).
The ENP covers Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine Authority, Israel, Lebanon, Syria,
Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus.
What seems to be problematic, however, is that the underlying rationale of the
UfM (i.e. focus on concrete projects such as energy, transport, education while
institutionalizing the principle of North-South co-ownership) has politicized EuroMediterranean cooperation to an unprecedented level. Instead of diverting attention from the
underlying conflicts in the region in order to focus on ‘practical’ and ‘concrete’ issues (as the
EMP had somewhat successfully done in the past), the UfM has rather served to exacerbate
them.24 With the UfM practically in a stalemate since its creation, most of the advancements
in Euro-Mediterranean cooperation after 2008 seen from the perspective of the EU have been
achieved on a bi-lateral level with a handful of ‘avant-garde’ countries such as Morocco,
Jordan and Israel. And then, in late 2010, a young Tunisian man set himself on fire which
would spur a wave of popular protests in North Africa and the Middle East.
‘Post-imperial partnerships for a post-imperial age’, or trying to come up
with something fresh but not really being able
After a zigzagging initial response to the protests in Tunisia, the Foreign Affairs Council of
the EU met on 31 January 2011 and expressed its support for the ‘democratic aspirations’ of
the Tunisian and Egyptian people.25 The European Council meeting on 4 February reiterated
this support and called upon HR Ashton to: ‘develop a package of measures aimed at lending
European Union support to the transition and transformation processes’ in the region.26 HR
Ashton visited Tunis on 14 February and met with the new Tunisian Prime Minister,
Mohamed Ghannouchi. At the end of the visit HR Ashton expressed that: ‘We want to be
Tunisia’s strongest ally in their move towards democracy’.27 On 22 February she visited Cairo
and at the end of her visit she stated that:
I salute the courage of Egyptian people in their peaceful and dignified mobilisation to bring
democracy and improve opportunities in their country… The EU stands ready to accompany
the peaceful and orderly transition to a civilian and democratic government and to support
Egyptian efforts to improve their economic situation and increase social cohesion.28
On 8 March 2011, HR Ashton and the Commission published a joint communication
proposing ‘A partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern
Interview #69 (Spanish Embassy to the Netherlands)
Council of the EU meeting, Foreign Affairs, 31 January 2011, Brussels
European Council meeting, 4 February 2011, Brussels
Remarks at the end of HR Ashton’s visit to Tunisia, 14 February 2011, Tunis
Remarks at the end of HR Ashton’s visit to Egypt, 22 February 2011, Cairo
Mediterranean’.29 The communication emphasized the need for the EU to support the
demands for political participation, dignity, freedom and employment opportunities. It also
proposed a so called ‘more-for-more’ principle, under which increased support in terms of
financial assistance, enhanced mobility, and access to the EU’s Internal Market were to be
made available, on the basis of mutual accountability, to those countries most ‘advanced’ in
terms of reforms.
In a speech to the European Parliament on 9 March 2011, HR Ashton described
what should be the guiding principles of the EU’s response to the Arab spring:
Our Southern neighbourhood is changing fast. Across the region, people are standing up for
that core human aspiration: to be able to shape their own lives, economically and politically…
A crucial aspect of what is going on is that the demand for change comes from within. When I
visited Tunisia and Egypt, I heard several times: this is our country and our Revolution. But
also: we need help. These two principles should guide our actions: the democratic transitions
have to be home-grown... But we should be ready to offer our full support, if asked…
Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and others are demanding respect for those values that are at
the heart of the European ideal. The emergence of democratic societies will help to build
sustainable security and shared prosperity in our neighbourhood… Overall, an incentive-based
approach is needed, with greater differentiation among countries. The guiding philosophy is
‘more for more’… Not dictating outcomes but supporting pluralism, accountability, deep
democracy and shared prosperity.30
On an earlier occasion, HR Ashton had set out her vision of what it is that the EU actually
could give to the countries in North Africa:
We have the experience to help every country that asks us now to help them make the journey
to democracy… in my experience, as long as we are clear about our objectives and honest in
our dealings, progress can always be made in building our relationships. For we can offer
something special: post-imperial partnerships for a post-imperial age.31
As the situation in Libya deteriorated the President of the European Council, Van Rompuy,
convened an extraordinary meeting on 11 March.32 The European Council welcomed UN
Security Council resolution 1970, calling for Qaddafi to step down, and announced that
sanctions had been adopted and stated that the EU from now on considered the transitional
national council in Benghazi as its political interlocutor. However, the EU member states
failed to keep a united front at the UN when resolution 1973 was adopted a few days later as
Germany abstained (see also below). Nonetheless, on 22 May HR Ashton became the highest-
European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy ‘A
Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean’ COM(2011) 200 final, 8
March 2011, Brussels
HR Ashton, speech to EP 9 March 2011, Brussels
HR Ashton, Speech at the Corvinus University, 25 February 2011, Budapest
European Council extraordinary meeting, 11 March 2011, Brussels
ranking foreign diplomat to visit Benghazi as she attended the inauguration of an EU office in
the rebel-held city and met with the chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil.
On 25 May another joint communication by HR Ashton and the Commission
was published, launching ‘a new response to a changing Neighbourhood’ focusing on
supporting ‘deep democracy’ and ‘sustainable economic growth’ in the partner countries. 33 In
this ‘new approach’ the EU is said to recognize that many challenges are common to all
countries in region, but the Union is allegedly prepared to support each country on a
differentiated basis focusing on the three ‘M:s’ (i.e. money, mobility and markets).34
In terms of money, in May 2011, the EU made available funds up to €1.2 billion
on top of the €5.7 billion already budgeted for support to the neighbourhood for the period
2011-2013.35 Furthermore, a new package of grants for the region was adopted by the
Commission on 26 September, including the so called SPRING (Support for Partnership
Reform and Inclusive Growth) programme,36 and the Civil Society Facility for the
neighbourhood (both south and east).37 In terms of mobility, HR Ashton and the Commission
envision allegedly an expansion of university scholarships and exchanges as well as the
launch of so called ‘mobility partnerships’, including visa facilitation and readmission
agreements. However, at the time of writing, dialogues on such partnerships have only been
launched with Tunisia and Morocco, and few tangible results have been reached thus far. In
terms of market access, negotiations of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements
(DCFTAs) are being negotiated with Morocco and Tunisia (and proposed to Jordan and
European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy ‘A
New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood: A Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy’ COM(2011)
303, 25 May 2011, Brussels.
Memo 11/918 ‘The EU’s response to the “Arab Spring”’, 16 December 2011, Brussels
In addition, the European Investment Bank (EIB) can now provide, besides the €4 billion available before the
Arab spring, additional loans for up to €1 billion to the region. The European Bank for Reconstruction and
Development (EBRD) is set to extend its geographical coverage to include the Southern Neighbourhood and to
provide annually up to €2.5 billion of public and private sector investment.
This carries a budget of €350 million in additional funds for 2011 and 2012 and makes available support on
the ‘more-for-more’ basis to partner countries showing sustained commitment to, and progress in, democratic
The overall budget for 2011 was €26.4 million. This facility aims to strengthen the capacity of civil society to
promote reform and increase public accountability in their countries. In its budget proposals for the period 20142020 announced on 7 December, the Commission recommended that the EU should allocate more than €18.1
billion to support the 16 partner countries of the ENP. This would represent an increase (approximately 40 per
cent) compared to the financial support of the period 2007-2013. The above figures are in addition to the first
and immediate financial response to provide humanitarian aid. The Commission has allocated €80.5 million to
the refugee crisis in Libya and Tunisia and EU member states have provided an additional €73 million.
It should be noted that these four countries have already signed the Agadir Agreement and are the most
advanced among the southern Mediterranean countries (expect Israel and Turkey) in terms of trade agreements
with the EU. Compared to current trade relationships with the EU, these DCFTAs are intended to go beyond
Furthermore, HR Ashton proposed in June that the EU should appoint the highranking Spanish diplomat, Bernardino León, as EU Special Representative (EUSR) for the
Southern Mediterranean.39 The Council so decided on 18 July 2011 and EUSR León’s task
was essentially to support the political dialogue with the EU’s southern neighbours and assist
the coordination of efforts among the EU institutions, member states, relevant financial
institutions such as the EIB and the EBRD, and the private sector (in 2014, Léon was
appointed UN Special Representative for Libya).40 High-level task forces co-chaired by HR
Ashton and political leaders of the partner countries are also a new tool for ‘enhanced’
political dialogue.
It should be noted that a major reason as to why the Commission could respond
fairly quickly with suggestions to the Council regarding changes to the EU’s policies and
instruments towards the southern neighbourhood seems to be that it was already engaged with
a revision of the whole ENP policy framework since 2010. Balfour notes that the new
approach of the EU towards the region: ‘does not represent a significant departure from
previous EU policy, which over the past twenty years has increasingly favoured findings
paths of cooperation with partner governments [in North Africa/Middle East]. The difference,
at least on paper, is that democratic commitments appear stronger conditions for gaining the
additional incentives’ (Balfour 2011:30).
Tunisia: a glimmer of hope in an otherwise darkening picture
Once the Foreign Affairs Council had expressed its support for the democratic aspirations of
the people in North Africa and the Middle East in January 2011, the EU’s political support for
the transition in Tunisia was demonstrated by a series of high-level visits.41 A wide range of
removing tariffs to cover all regulatory issues relevant to trade (e.g. investment protection and public
procurement) which also something that the EU has been calling for since the launch of the ENP in 2004.
Moreover, a new investment scheme called SANAD (‘support’ in Arabic) was also launched in August 2011
together with a German bank for a total of €20 million.
Press release A252/11 ‘Catherine Ashton proposes Bernardino Leon as new EU Special Representative for the
Southern Mediterranean Region’, 29 June 2011, Brussels
As EUSR, León was also tasked to establish coordination on behalf of the EU with relevant local partners and
international and regional organizations such as the African Union, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States
of the Gulf, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the League of Arab States and the UN. See, Council
Decision 2011/424/CFSP appointing a European Union Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean
region, 18 July 2011, Brussels
For example by HR Ashton a few weeks after the revolution (see above). Her visit to Tunis was followed by
visits by Commission President Barroso, Commissioners Füle (Enlargement/Neighbourhood), Cecilia
Malmström (Justice and Home Affairs), Kristalina Georgieva (Humanitarian Aid), Michel Barnier (Internal
Market) and Karel De Gucht (Trade), as well as the President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek.
EU financial instruments have been mobilized in response to the challenges of the transition
process in Tunisia and humanitarian support has been made available, in particular to help
Tunisia to cope with the influx of refugees fleeing civil war in Libya. 42 The EU provided
support for the preparation of the elections held in October 2011, mainly through the
provision of technical assistance to the transitional authorities but also support to civil society
organizations. The EU also increased the funds available for bilateral cooperation with
Tunisia, it has doubled the allocation for 2011 and for the period 2011-2013 the budget was
increased from €240 million to €400 million. These new funds are said to target in particular
economic recovery and strengthening civil society organizations.
In addition, the EU-Tunisia Task Force (the first one in the region) has been set
up aiming to ensure better coordination of European and international support for Tunisia’s
political and economic transition. The first meeting, chaired jointly by HR Ashton and
Tunisian Prime Minister, Béji Caĭd Essebsi, on 28-29 September in Tunis, allowed an
involvement of both European and international partners. HR Ashton made the following
comments at the end of the first task force meeting:
Tunisia is making history. In just over three weeks, you will be holding the first fully
democratic elections in the region since the start of the Arab Spring. A new Tunisia is
emerging: open, dynamic, prosperous, and democratic. It is an example for the entire region…
The EU is committed to doing all it can to help.43
In total, nearly €4 billion (including grants and loans) was allegedly made available to support
the transition in Tunisia in 2011-2013: 3 billion from EU institutions, EU banks and
international institutions44 and one billion from EU member states. The EU and Tunisia also
expressed the joint ambition of a privileged partnership through an ‘advanced status’,45 as
well as agreed on resuming negotiations on other issues, including on trade liberalization and
a mobility partnership.46
An EU Electoral Observation Mission was present in Tunisia on 23 October as
the country’s first free elections were held. Shortly afterwards HR Ashton and Commissioner
Memo 11/918 ‘The EU’s response to the “Arab Spring”’, 16 December 2011, Brussels
HR Ashton, comments following the EU/Tunisia Task Force meeting, 29 September 2011, Brussels
African Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, World Bank.
Such an ‘advanced status’ was granted to Morocco already in 2008. See, EU-Moroccan Association Council
‘Document conjoint UE-Maroc sur le renforcement des relations bilatérales/Statut Avancé’ UE-MA 2701/09, 3
December 2009, Brussels
Memo A 70/13 ‘EU’s response to the “Arab spring”: The state-of-play after Two Years’, 8 February 2013,
Füle commended the candidates and parties that took part in the democratic process and
congratulated the Ennahda party which obtained the highest percentage of the votes:
For the first time Tunisian citizens have had the opportunity to choose in a free and democratic manner
their representatives and determine their own future. The newly elected Constituent Assembly will now
have the key task of writing the new Constitution of the country. It will need to work in a spirit of
consensus in order to build a new democratic State… The EU remains fully committed to continue its
political and financial support for the Tunisian society.
Since the elections held in October 2011, the political transition process in Tunisia has moved
forward although the economy continuous to be in a dire situation and security is a main
concern, which was underlined by the assassination of two political leaders in 2013. Still, the
new Constitution was passed by an overwhelming majority in January 2014 and before that
the political parties in the National Assembly managed to reach a compromise on a care-taker
government after months of political dead-lock. HR Ashton welcomed the appointment of
Mehdi Jomaa as Prime Minister of Tunisia and stressed the EU’s support of this ‘consensual
Libya: strong initial endorsement but increasing concerns
The Qaddafi regime’s brutal repression of demonstrations in early 2011 led the EU to suspend
all technical cooperation with the country as well as the negotiations on the EU-Libya
Framework Agreement (see above).49 EU representatives also participated in international
meetings such as those of the International Contact Group on Libya, and HR Ashton worked
to try and bring together divergent positions of some key international partners through her
participation in the ‘Cairo Group’.50 The EU adopted a series of sanctions against individuals
and entities, aiming at preventing arms and money from reaching the Qaddafi regime. The
engagement of EU member states (notably France and the U.K.) at the international level led
to the UN Security Council resolution 1973 which called for international action to protect
civilians and provided the legal basis for the NATO-led military intervention (Adler-Nissen &
Press release A434/11 ‘Joint statement by Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign
Affairs and Security Policy, and Commissioner Štefan Füle, on the Constituent Assembly Elections in the
Republic of Tunisia’ 28 October 2011, Brussels
HR Ashton, Statement on the appointment of Mehdi Jomaa as PM of Tunisia, 19 December 2013
Compared to Tunisia and Morocco, Libya’s relations with the EU are much less institutionalized and informal.
It has not signed any association agreement with the EU nor has the country taken active part in EU-supported
regional frameworks, such as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership/Union for the Mediterranean or the ENP.
However, in the years preceding the Arab spring Libya had started to move closer to the EU in line with
Qaddafi’s rapprochement with the West.
Bringing together AU, Arab League, EU, Organization of the Islamic Conference and UN.
Pouliot, 2014). As mentioned above, HR Ashton opened an EU office in Benghazi in May
2011 and then inaugurated an EU Delegation in Tripoli during her visit to Libya in November
the same year. She was also the first foreign dignitary to meet with the newly appointed
Libyan Prime Minister, Abdurrahim al-Keib. On that occasion of the opening of the office in
Benghazi, HR Ashton remarked:
It is the symbol of the European Union being here, but also of the EU being here to stay. And
the commitment that I bring is not just that we will be here in these coming weeks and
months, but also in the years to come. And as Libya creates its own democracy, as the Libyan
people move forward, the European Union will be there to support that process and to support
the people.51
Since the beginning of the crisis in Libya, the EU has provided more than €155 million in
humanitarian aid and mobilised EU civil protection teams and assets to assist civilians both in
Libya and at its borders. There was a large flow of refugees from Libya over the border to
Tunisia and initially, when insufficient civilian means were available, the EU Military Staff
(on request and under the overall coordination of DG ECHO at the Commission) coordinated
the use of military aircraft from member states for the evacuation of refugees from Tunisia to
their countries of origin. The EU was also involved in the evacuation of EU citizens from
On 1 April 2011 the Council approved the launch of a CSDP operation (EUFOR
Libya) to provide military support and security to humanitarian assistance in Libya. 53 An
operational headquarters was set-up in Rome, and the Council decided that military support
and security would only be given on the request of the UN Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). As it turned out, OCHA never made such a request and the
CSDP operation was never launched.54 Nonetheless, the Commission made available €39
million throughout 2011 to support the immediate stabilisation priorities of the Libyan NTC
HR Ashton, Remarks at the opening of the EU office in Benghazi, 22 May 2011, Benghazi
In total there were about 7,500 EU citizens in Libya of which 6,500 asked to be evacuated About 4,400 EU
citizens were evacuated from Libya using military means. See, EU factsheet on military assistance for Libya, 7
October 2011, Brussles
Press release 8589/11/PRESSE 91 ‘Council decides on EU military operation in support of humanitarian
assistance operations in Libya’, 1 April 2011, Brussels
There are indications that Sweden blocked the adoption of the concept of operations for EUFOR Libya at the
Foreign Affairs Council on 12 April. Koenig notes that: ‘For Sweden, this issue was particularly sensitive since
it was the framework nation of one of the two Battlegroups on stand-by, whose deployment was being
considered in the context of EUFOR Libya. In case of a deployment, Sweden would have had the operational
command of the Nordic Battlegroup to which it contributes around 1,600 soldiers’ (Koenig, 2011:11).
Nonetheless, Sweden was one of the non-NATO member states that participated with aircrafts in the operation to
enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
(e.g. public administration, civil society, health and education), and a further €50 million is
intended to be available for longer-term support programmes.
In July 2012, elections to the Libyan National Congress were held and HR
Ashton was quick to comment on the ‘historic elections’, saying that they:
…should mark the beginning of a new era of democracy in Libya. In a climate of freedom, in
spite of reports of isolated incidents of violence, Libyan citizens cast their votes today and
have decided their future in a dignified and orderly manner… The EU is determined to
strengthen its engagement with Libya, a key neighbour for Europe with whom we wish to
establish long-term and mutually beneficial relations. We will continue to provide strong
support for Libya in the interests of securing a peaceful, democratic and prosperous future for
its people.55
As agreed at the international conference in Paris in September 2011, the EU is also carrying
out needs assessments in communications, civil society, and border management. It has
deployed experts to Libya in these fields as well as in security and procurement. Moreover,
migration-related projects which had been suspended in early 2011 have been resumed and in
May 2013 the Council decided to launch a civilian CSDP Border Assistance Mission
(EUBAM) in order to assist Libyan authorities in developing border management and security
at the country’s land, sea and air borders.56
Still, the overarching concern is the deteriorating security situation in Libya after
the collapse of the Qaddafi regime (and the effect that Libya’s instability has on other
countries in the region, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Mali). The major challenge for the
Libyan authorities is to maintain law and order in a situation where the Libyan state does not
effectively uphold the monopoly of violence on its territory (many of the armed militias that
fought against Qaddafi’s forces in the NATO-backed uprising refuse to disarm or enter the
regular armed forces). The terrorist attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on 11
September 2012 and the snap abduction of the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October
2013 only serve to underline the precariousness of the current situation in the country.
Moreover, at least 27 persons were shot dead and more than 200 injured after they had taken
part in demonstrations against the presence of armed militias in Tripoli in November 2013.57
As a response to the shootings, HR Ashton made the following statement:
HR Ashton, Joint statement with Commissioner Füle on the Libyan elections, 7 July 2012, Brussels
EU factsheet on Integrated Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya, October 2013, Brussels
Aljazeera ’Protest against Libya militias turns deadly’, 16 November 2013,
I deplore the loss of life during a peaceful demonstration which took place in Tripoli earlier
today. I express sympathy to the families and friends of those killed and wish a quick recovery
to the many wounded. I want to underline the importance for all parties to respect fundamental
values such as the freedom of expression and assembly which are also at the roots of the 17
February Revolution. Those responsible for these crimes should be brought to justice. I call on
all parties to refrain from further violence and to work collectively to achieve a peaceful and
democratic transition to the benefit of the Libyan people.58
At the time of writing there are few signs of progress, and in early March 2014 the Libyan
Parliament was attacked by armed protesters who killed a guard and wounded several MPs.
The Parliament had to move temporarily to a hotel in Tripoli. There are suggestions that these
events were spurred by popular anger at the Parliament’s decision to prolong its mandate until
December, but that they are also part of an on-going power struggle between groups
(including some militias) supporting Prime Minister Zeidan and groups (militias and
Islamists) that seek to remove him.59
Egypt: back to square one?
The EU has time and again called for a ‘peaceful and inclusive’ transition in Egypt since the
first protests erupted in the Tahrir square in early 2011. Besides HR Ashton, a number of
high-ranking EU officials visited the country at an early stage, including European
Commissioner for Neighbourhood Füle. Following the inauguration of Muhammed Morsi as
President of Egypt in July 2012, HR Ashton stated that:
This is a moment to celebrate the first democratically elected President in Egypt's history. We
know that there are many challenges ahead and look forward to working with him and his
future Government as he leads the country into the next crucial stage of its transition.60
Muhammed Morsi visited Brussels as one of his first visits abroad as President of Egypt
which led to the resumption of bilateral contacts through the structures of the EU-Egypt
Association Agreement and a restart of negotiations on a new ENP Action Plan. In terms of
financial support, the EU made available €449 million for the period 2011-2013. Moreover,
the EU committed to contribute €90 million of assistance from the SPRING programme to
support socio-economic reform measures (together with the World Bank and the African
HR Ashton, Statement on the shooting of peaceful demonstrators in Libya, 15 November 2013
Al Jazeera, ‘Libya relocates parliament after attack’ 3 March 2013,
Development Bank), €163 million from the Neighbourhood Investment Facility (subject to
endorsement from IMF), and up-to €500 million Macro-Financial Assistance.61 In the
framework of the EU-Egypt Task Force, the parties agreed to the possible negotiation of a
deep and comprehensive free trade agreement (DCFTA). Furthermore, the EU pledged an
additional financial package of €5 billion during the EU-Egypt Task Force in November
2012. At the opening ceremony for the task force, HR Ashton gave a speech in which she
20 months ago people in Egypt gathered in Tahrir Square to demand political and social and
economic rights. Since that day this country has come a long way. But the people continue to
drive the demand and it is they that inspire us all to gather here today. The holding of
democratic presidential elections is a historic landmark for this country. President Morsi has
impressed the European Union not just with what he says but with his commitment.62
At the end of the speech she also gave an example of how EU-Egyptian cooperation should be
You will have noticed, I hope, in this hotel in the lobby we have a replica of the tomb of
Tutankhamun and that is a great description of what this is all about. Because there before you
is something that those who’ve seen the original will tell you is exactly the same when you
look at it but it’s created by the technological genius of a group of people. They’re Europeans,
who came here to ensure that it will happen. Most importantly of all, the technological genius
will be transferred to provide skills in this country. It will become Egyptian technology and I
think it’s a good metaphor for the recognition that we can create the best in the world and that
we can use it to celebrate the past, with all its splendour, but to look forward to the enormous
potential of the future.63
However, social and political tensions began to build up in Egypt after the new Islamistinspired Constitution was adopted in late 2012. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood
were blamed for mismanaging the economy and not seeking political compromises with their
political adversaries. As the one-year anniversary of President Morsi’s election was coming
up it stood clear that there were going to be large popular protests against the incumbent
government. In July 2013 the Egyptian Armed Forces intervened in a military coup to oust the
elected President and imprison him and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This presented the EU (and the U.S.) with a delicate situation as the Union had
explicitly supported President Morsi as the first democratically elected leader of Egypt, while
Memo A 70/13 ‘EU’s response to the “Arab spring”: The state-of-play after Two Years’, 8 February 2013,
HR Ashton, Speech at the opening session of the EU-Egypt Task Force, 14 November 2012, Cairo
HR Ashton, Speech at the opening session of the EU-Egypt Task Force, 14 November 2012, Cairo
it could not afford to condemn the new regime too harshly due to the strategic importance of
EU-Egyptian relations. In a statement on behalf of the EU, HR Ashton declared:
The military must accept and respect the constitutional authority of the civilian power as a
basic principle of democratic governance. It is of utmost importance that Egypt returns rapidly
to a legitimate government and democratic structures responding to the democratic and
socioeconomic aspirations of the Egyptian people… The EU calls for a broad-based and
substantial dialogue, inclusive of all those political forces committed to democratic
principles… A successful outcome will depend on the free participation of all political actors,
including the Freedom and Justice Party, which we encourage to do so.64
An emphasis on an ‘inclusive process’ that quickly restores the powers of civilian authorities
and an elected government has since the toppling of Muhammed Morsi been the leitmotif of
EU’s approach to the developments in Egypt. For example, HR Ashton issued a joint
statement with U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, saying that they: ‘support basic
democratic principles, not any particular personalities or parties’. HR Ashton also visited
Egypt to meet with representatives of the new regime, including Field Marshal Abdel Fattah
Al-Sisi, and was allowed to visit the imprisoned Muhammed Morsi.
In mid-August, Egyptian security forces dispersed pro-Morsi demonstrations
resulting in several hundreds of casualties. This led HR Ashton to convene an extra-ordinary
Foreign Affairs Minister Meeting on 21 August which called for a review of the EU’s
assistance to Egypt.65 On 11 September HR Ashton held a speech in the European Parliament
in which she gave her version of how the EU had responded to the crisis in Egypt:
…I want to be absolutely clear that it is our principles that have guided us in our discussions
in Egypt. We don’t take sides in terms of the choices that people make but we are clear: We
believe in a constitution that will support democracy, We believe in the Rule of Law, We
believe in Justice, And we believe in Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms…
we did not fail in the actions that we took. We did what we came to do. We remain in touch
with the Egyptian authorities and politicians on all sides, on a regular basis. We don’t take
sides - we work to try and help to achieve the best for the people. We continue to stand by the
people of Egypt who overwhelmingly want a return to democracy and a strong and peaceful
The new Egyptian regime under Field Marshal Al-Sisi quickly presented a so-called roadmap
which envisioned the draft of a new Constitution, as well as handing over power to civilian
authorities after parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2014. As no clear
presidential candidates have emerged as of yet, there are speculations that the road is being
paved for Al-Sisi to become President of Egypt. However, the security situation in Egypt
HR Ashton, Declaration on behalf of the European Union, on the situation in Egypt, 14 July 2013, Brussels
Council of the EU, Council conclusions on Egypt, 21 August 2013, Brussels
HR Ashton, Speech to the European Parliament on the situation in Egypt, 11 September 2013, Brussels
continuous to be in a precarious state with terrorist attacks in the Sinai, social unrest in the
major cities and a growing polarization of the Egyptian society. The economy is also suffering
badly from the turmoil, not least the tourist sector. Moreover, as the EU and U.S. were
struggling to find the right response to the military coup (not too harsh, not too soft), other
actors such as Saudi Arabia and Russia courted the new regime with promises of financial aid
and military assistance, possibly moving Egypt a few steps out of the Western camp.
The picture that emerges from the above analysis is one in which EU officials are struggling
to come up with a suitable framing of the events unfolding in North Africa which firmly
places agency at the hands of the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian people at same time as it
provides justification for closer EU involvement. Moreover, the notion that the EU should
now do everything it can to do right by the countries in North Africa after decades of
cooperating with authoritarian regimes is also a recurrent theme in the statements and
speeches by HR Ashton and other EU representatives. Needless to say, this is exactly what the
discourse on ‘partnership’ and ‘deep democracy’ is meant to do.
Stressing, like HR Ashton does on a number of occasions, that the demands put
forward by the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya calling for an end to corruption and the
establishment of accountable governments are also at the ‘heart of at the European ideal’ is a
way of saying that European and North African societies share a common vision of political
order. It is at the same time a way of saying that the EU has an important role to play in the
process of establishing democracy and human rights in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Nonetheless, the difficulties that the EU is experiencing with reconciling the rhetoric on
supporting deep democracy and keeping up with the developments on the ground is all too
evident in its awkward response to the military coup in Egypt in July 2013.
The analysis presented here suggests that the policy initiatives launched thus far
contain few substantial novelties. The Commission had already been working on a revision of
the ENP which provided the basis for the Communications it presented to the Council in the
spring of 2011 (e.g. partnership for democracy and shared prosperity) and this nicely
illustrates that there was a fair amount of continuity in how the EU initially sought to respond
to the challenges and opportunities brought about in the wake of the Arab spring. The point to
be made here is that the expertise built up over many years in the Commission and the
Council Secretariat on how to tailor the EU’s relations with non-members in North Africa, for
all its misperceptions, shortcomings and insufficiencies, provided the baseline for shared
practical understandings from which EU officials, and ultimately also HR Ashton, acted.
While this interpretation is not too far from Pace’s analysis of the role of prejudices in
shaping EU responses, the conclusion here is not that this necessarily is a case of a ‘basic
failure to understand the core issues’ at stake (cf. Pace, 2014:981).
There is little doubt that the Arab spring has challenged the previous modus
operandi of the EU toward the countries in North Africa. The present condition is a crisis in
that it seems to have rendered the established ways-of-doing things obsolete, at the same time
as it is far from certain that the policies and instruments applied by the EU thus far would be
adequate in face of current challenges. It can of course be questioned whether they ever were
in the past. Instead of instigating a clean break from the past, the Arab spring rather seems to
have open up for the possibility of broadening of the repertoire of EU practices with
Mediterranean non-members, some of which draw can be said to date back to the early 1990s
whereas other rather emerged after 9/11. Adjustments to EU policies, small as they might be,
appear in many ways to take on the shape of a re-make of the past, more than a new deal.
To simplify matters slightly, it can be argued that since the 1990s there have
been two sets of practices underlying the EU’s Mediterranean policies. Both of them can be
said to draw upon a notion that the EU has a prominent role to play in the Mediterranean
region, albeit with different means and goals. The first set of practices relates to the EU’s
region-building aspirations which build upon European diplomatic practices emerging out of
the CSCE/OSCE experience. This is captured by the EMP’s transfer of regional political
dialogue and confidence-building measures, and even though the EU was thought to assume a
leadership role in the exercise it was assumed to do so without explicitly imposing ‘European
values’ on its Mediterranean partners. The second set of practices relates to externalization of
EU policies which to a large extent builds upon the Commission’s experiences of preaccession negotiations and the Eastern enlargement. The ENP’s focus on regulatory
convergence with EU rules and standards is the obvious example here. This did not only place
stronger emphasis on bi-lateral cooperation vis-à-vis individual Mediterranean non-members
but it was also increasingly shaped by a ‘working arrangement’ where the Commission would
deal more with the apparently technical aspects of cooperation whereas EU member states
would be more involved in the political cooperation (not least in relation to sensitive issues
such as terrorism and migration).
Thus, the notion that the EU can offer countries in North Africa ‘post-imperial
partnerships for a post-imperial age’ building on a ‘more-for-more’ approach (i.e. better
access to the Internal Market and enhanced financial support for those countries that
undertake democratic reforms) can be said to a large extent enact features of both the EMP
and ENP. While this is perhaps not too surprising seen from the perspective of practice, there
is something more to this picture. Paradoxically, the emphasis on universal values of human
rights and democracy in the discourse of EU officials runs the risks of reifying the Eurocentric outlook of the Union and its policies towards the region. On the one hand celebrating
Arab popular uprisings as expressions of underlying desires to become like ‘us’, and on the
other hand stressing how the EU through relying on European experiences can help a country
like Tunisia move towards liberal democracy suggests that the ‘European path’ can (and
perhaps should) be followed also by others.
However, there seems to be nothing that in principle contradicts the notion that
political freedom and participation might find expression in local traditions and customs,
rather than being primarily imposed from Western scripts. Surely, if learning is meant to have
a meaning other than mere transfer of something from one actor to another it needs to
incorporate a notion of adaption to previous understandings. Interestingly, a focus on practice
gives us some clues as to how to think about such processes of learning and adaption since it
does not emphasize norm internalization as the universal means to achieve commitment to
communal standards. A strong commitment to democracy and human rights would thus not
necessarily have to led to a position saying that countries in North Africa must strive to
resemble EU member states (a rather heterogeneous crowd in terms of liberal democracy to
begin with), but rather to a position saying that to the extent that countries in North Africa
find ways to express and safeguard political freedom and participation in their political
systems there is something for European states to be learnt as well. In order to steer clear of
possible Euro-centrism there seems to be a need for an even greater emphasis on the
universality of democracy and human rights by way of understanding the process of becoming
democratic as an on-going, non-completed, and therefore potentially universal, endeavor
taking place at different times and spaces in human history.
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