Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

EU with a leading role in supporting the Arab spring

Ralitsa Kovacheva, May 28, 2011

At their Deauville summit the Group of the eight world’s largest economies launched the Deauville Partnership with the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The aim is the region to be supported politically and economically during its democratic transition.

The first impression from the G8 declaration on the Arab Spring is that it starts with an analogy between the events in MENA and in Central and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. However, it is sufficiently restrained not to provoke controversial comments - after all the statement has also been signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “The changes under way in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are historic and have the potential to open the door to the kind of transformation that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

The whole paper sounds in a similar manner - halfway and falling short of expectations. The pioneers of the Deauville Partnership are Egypt and Tunisia - the countries where the wave of change started. It is based on two pillars: “a political process to support the democratic transition and foster governance reforms, notably the fight against corruption and the strengthening of the institutions needed to ensure transparency and accountable government; and an economic framework for sustainable and inclusive growth.”

The main goal is to ensure that “instability does not undermine the process of political reform, and that social cohesion and macroeconomic stability are both sustained.” In other words, there is no way political reforms to take place if the population is poor and the economy is weak. So at first, these countries need help to close their budget holes and to stabilise their economies, so that the fragile reform momentum is not bent under the financial pressure.

“This requires a strategic shift in the approach and actions of the international community in the region”, the declaration states. We are already on the second page of the document searching for this “strategic shift” in the form of specific commitments made by the Group of Eight. At this stage only multilateral development banks are mentioned, in particular the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), as well as a “change the scale of trade and investment integration”.

The EBRD is expected to expand the geographic scope of its mandate to support the transition of the region to a multiparty democracy, pluralism and market economies. Just like the letter of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to the G8 leaders, the declaration stresses that the EBRD is expected to be the same "unique instrument” to help the transition of the region, as it was for Central and Eastern Europe 20 years ago.

As regards the integration of the Partnership Countries in regional and global economy through increased trade and foreign investment, the G8 commitments again are limited to support and encouragement. By contrast, the “EU is taking initiatives, under the Partnership for democracy and shared prosperity, to deepen trade with countries in the South Mediterranean“. The European Union "will reinvigorate and strengthen its neighbourhood policy towards Partnership Countries” and “will offer reforming countries a path towards closer economic integration the EU single market in areas of mutual interest”.

In numbers it looks like this: By 2013, under the EU Neighbourhood Policy a total of 7 billion euros will be provided (a billion and a half more than it was intended). These are grants, not loans, as European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso stressed. He noted that this money would come only from EU budget, but in addition, Member States were also ready to help on a bilateral basis. The European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will play a key role in the region. We are putting the largest amount of money on the table, the Commission president said, but stressed: our aid is conditional, more reforms - more money.

What about the others? The United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative; Japan will promote trade and investment in the region, Russia will use its agreement with the Arab League to explore projects of regional cooperation and social development; Canada is in the process of adopting a free trade agreement with Jordan and is discussing such with Morocco.

Both Tunisia and Egypt have already requested assistance from the IMF and the multilateral development banks. According to the G8 paper, “multilateral development banks could provide over $20bn, including €3.5bn from the EIB, for Egypt and Tunisia for 2011-2013 in support of suitable reform efforts.”

In conclusion, the G8 leaders commit, except from promoting democratic changes and multi-party political system, to focus their efforts in the region on education and training too. “Tackling high levels of illiteracy and unemployment, especially among young people, and making vocational training labour-market oriented, is key to ensuring a qualified workforce to help modernize the MENA economies.”

Among the necessary changes is also to promote freedom of expression, taking into account “the critical role of media and the Internet in contributing to the democratisation of societies”, as well as “the right to practise religious faith in safety and security, without fear of violence and repression.”

The latter inevitably reminds me of the incident in front of the Sofia mosque only a week ago, when activists of the nationalist party Ataka (“attack”) literally attacked Muslim prayers. This brings us back to the beginning and the analogies with the changes in Eastern Europe 20 years ago. Is there really a radical shift in approach as stated in the declaration? Perhaps, in terms of the previously cordial relations with dictatorship regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, which were politically comfortable and economically beneficial for the West. Otherwise, what is now being proposed to the countries of the MENA region is similar to the offer to the Central and Eastern Europe.

We can hardly say that this approach hasn’t been effective as some former socialist countries have obviously benefited from the opportunities. However, we can hardly say it has been successful either - most former socialist countries are still "catching up" with the European economic standards, and in political terms the “Europeanisation” is even more disputable. If we add to that the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) imposed on Bulgaria and Romania, because of their problems with the judicial system, organised crime and corruption, the assessment how successful the European integration of the newest EU members was is getting even more controversial.

What is visible to the naked eye at this stage is that the European Union is taking care to guide and fund the transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, while the other “Big” will provide support and help on a bilateral basis. This will be a serious test for the EU Neighbourhood Policy, which has yet to adjust itself to its changing neighbourhood. And perhaps the lessons of the European integration, especially in the Balkans will be very useful.