IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2013



Geographical Overview

Strategic Sectors


Arab Neighbours Need a Common EU Foreign Policy

Andreu Bassols

Director General
European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed), Barcelona

At the end of the 1990s, experts, think-tanks and political scientists used to say that the 21st century would be the Asian Century. However, the first decade of the 21st century, starting with 9/11, then the war in Iraq and ending with the Arab Spring,has been the decade of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Whatever the historical value we attach to the Arab Spring, the events that begun in Tunisia in December 2010 and continued in many other countries of the Arab world could be considered as the most significant political phenomenon since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their impact on the daily lives of Arab citizens in terms of bloody conflicts, leadership changes, new freedoms and constitutional reforms, makes them difficult for the international community to ignore.

The Arab Spring has put the long-standing debate on the table again between those who believe that modern history proves that societies move toward democracy and freedom and those who, more sceptically, can hardly see any direction in the events of contemporary history. The former perceive in the Arab uprisings a new wave of democratic transformations that follows those of Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. The latter point to the unfolding of power shifts in the last 50 years and to the fact that many of these transitions did not result in political systems that could be considered democratic by any accepted international standard[1].

This controversy, as theoretical as it may seem, carries some weight in EU policy making. From Europe, the Arab Spring is followed with a mixture of hope and fear. When hope prevails, foreign policy tends to be more proactive and interventionist. When fear takes over, the purpose of foreign policy is rather to escape misfortune than to achieve a positive outcome.

The problem is that the Southern neighbourhood needs more coherence and consistency, not less. As shown in the 4th Euromed Survey, carried out by the IEMed in early 2013, experts believe that the Mediterranean is becoming increasingly multipolar, subject to the influences and ambitions of a variety of international players. The Arab neighbours need, therefore, a consistent EU common foreign policy to attract them towards democratic models of governance and towards regional integration. This need is even more pressing after the much publicised pivot of US foreign policy focus towards Asia. Relations with Mediterranean countries remain a major challenge for Europe, and nobody can deny that the region is a major strategic priority for Europe.

Divisive and Decisive Issues

The EU struggles to achieve unity of vision and action in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This is not surprising. Precisely because the region is strategically important, the chances that divisive issues emerge among EU Member States are higher than in other regions. This is particularly true when the regional dynamics are unpredictable.

In few months in 2011, Europe witnessed how its Southern neighbourhood was transformed; how years of stability were ended by unexpectedly strong popular revolts that managed to oust three Heads of State and resulted in two civil wars, one of them still underway. It also witnessed how the waves of migrants from Tunisia and Libya threatened the correct functioning of the Schengen space and how civil protection mechanisms and humanitarian aid were tested and successfully implemented by the EU. The EU observed Arab upheavals and supported the popular demands for more freedom, justice and dignity. Many in Europe deemed the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt to be the Arab manifestation of the universal aspiration to be ruled by democratically elected leaders and more accountable governments. In Libya, European countries sided with the rebellion against the regime. France and the UK led the military operation that ousted Colonel Gaddafi. The EU’s quick reaction, with two Communications in March and May 2011, set out an agenda based on the principle of more for more: “The more and the faster a country progresses in its internal reforms, the more support it will get from the EU.”[2]

Yet, in general, it was difficult for European countries to change the perception that for decades Europe backed authoritarian regimes in the Arab Mediterranean region. France’s support of the Ben Ali regime until the very last days before 14 January 2011 and Europe’s hesitations in Egypt between 25 January and 11 February did nothing to improve Europe’s image or that of any Western country in the Arab public opinion.

The reaction of European countries to the political challenges posed by the Arab Spring and its aftermath has been confronted with the need to making specific decisions on four decisive and divisive issues.

The first of them was the EU position towards the conflict in Libya; the EU’s “baptism by fire” after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. The UNSC adopted the Resolution 1973 establishing a no-fly zone and authorising “all necessary measures to be taken to protect civilians.” On 19 March 2011, a coalition led by France, the UK and the US, started air strikes against pro-Gaddafi forces and by the end of March NATO assumed command of air operations. The EU was praised for its quick and substantial delivery of aid and for its sanctions regime. However, disagreements among Member States arose regarding the recognition of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and, more importantly, over resolution 1973, when Germany broke ranks with its EU and NATO partners and voted against it. [3]

The political landscape changed radically with the election results in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The three votes handed the power to parties from the Muslim Brotherhood movement and proved that political Islam was part of the mainstream in Arab politics

A second issue that is proving to be divisive for the EU is the stance towards Syria and the support of the opposition, in particular the Free Syrian Army. The deferred and conditional lifting of the arms embargo decided by the EU on 27 June 2013 allowed for the continuation of the economic and financial sanctions but left behind some unresolved questions. One of them was the listing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. This was done on 22 July when the military wing of the Shiite organisation was eventually blacklisted, in what was considered to be a reversal of the EU’s past policy, fuelled not only by the terrorist attack in Bulgaria in 2012, but also by the role of this organisation in Syria’s civil war[4].

A third controversial issue among EU Member States is the positioning towards Islamist parties. The EU and its Member States’ track record when Islamist parties win elections in the Arab world is not very encouraging[5]. The first case in point was the 1992 Algerian crisis and the disruption of the democratic process by the military, where the EU failed to react in any concerted manner. Since then, Algeria became the paradigm through which policy makers analysed the participation of Islamism in politics. A paradigm that implied that Islamist parties were basically a threat to security and their involvement in politics needed to be carefully considered or simply excluded. This line was partially modified as a result of the efforts to engage with “moderate” Islamists from 2003.

The political landscape, of course, changed radically with the election results in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The three votes handed the power to parties from the Muslim Brotherhood movement and proved, if proof were needed, that political Islam was part of the mainstream in Arab politics. Even then, not everyone felt comfortable dealing with Islamist parties. The attacks in September 2012 on the US embassy in Tunis and the US consulate in Benghazi, where the US ambassador lost his life, opened a new period of distrust between Western countries and Islamist parties. 

The military intervention in Egypt that removed President Mursi on 3 July 2013, whose legitimacy went unquestioned internationally, brought the issue again to the top of the diplomatic agenda. Contrary to what happened with Algeria 21 years before, the EU reaction was strong and clear[6]. The conclusions by the Council of Foreign Affairs on 22 July stated that the army should not play a political role in a democracy and called for a democratic drafting process of the constitution (thereby acknowledging that the constitution approved in December 2012 was no longer legitimate), free and fair elections, the end of politically motivated arrests and the release of political prisoners including President Mursi. The key question though lied in the characterisation of what happened in Cairo on 3 July. “Legitimacy,” “coup d’état,” “revolution” and “military intervention to respond to popular demands” were all concepts used or avoided in political declarations and the media. Behind these terminological ambiguities there was something more than an academic discussion. The recognition of the new government, the long-standing US military aid to Egypt and the IMF loan to ease the country’s troubled finances were at stake and depended on whether the power shift was to be considered lawful or unlawful, legitimate or illegitimate, justified or unjustified[7].

Finally, although not directly connected with the Arab upheavals, the recognition of Palestine on 29 November 2012 as an observer in the United Nations also demonstrated the EU’s inability to speak with one voice in one of the major issues related to the Arab Mediterranean region. 14 EU Member States voted in favour of the resolution, 12 abstained, and one voted against (the Czech Republic).

The four contentious issues mentioned above differ in importance and political implications but may lead to a number of conclusions. First, that military intervention is a matter that only few Member States are ready to engage in; second, that those who believe that the EU should act in total harmony and coherence in foreign policy matters ignore, or pretend to ignore, that there are differences of interests and varying degrees to put values into practice on the international scene; and third, that there is still great hesitation about how to tackle political Islam and democratic transitions. On the other hand, as referred by Pol Morillas of the IEMed, “Member States reacted to institutional novelty (after the Lisbon Treaty) by restating their position in the new institutional architecture. Although not seeking to undermine the new structures, they made clear that decision-taking in EU foreign policy still follows intergovernmental rules.”[8]

The Policy Split

In addition to the differences that may surface and eventually prevail between Member States in the domain of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the EU had to confront the split of its policy framework when dealing with the Southern Mediterranean. This policy split was the making of the realities emerging after the 2004 enlargement and the materialisation of certain intergovernmental approaches to EU foreign policy formulation.

In November 1995, six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the midst of the process that would conclude in 2004 with the accession of ten new Member States to the European Union, the EU launched the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership in the Barcelona Conference. The Conference was the result of EU efforts to demonstrate that the Southern Mediterranean continued to be a priority for Europe and of the hopes raised by the Oslo Process to put an end to the Middle East conflict. The Barcelona Process was the “southern” equivalent of the Helsinki conference with the aim of opening up the regimes, many of them authoritarian, and creating a framework of cooperation between Europe and the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean with the full participation of Israel.

The process initiated in 1995 was successful in developing a web of bilateral agreements between the EU and the Mediterranean partners. All countries, except Syria (and Libya that had observer status), concluded association agreements containing free trade provisions with the EU. But the process failed to develop a strong multilateral cooperation as the Middle East Peace process stalled and virtually disappeared after the second Intifada in 2001 and the war in Southern Lebanon in 2006.

Between 1995 and 2003 Euro-Mediterranean multilateral relations ran parallel with the EU’s bilateral relations with the countries of the region. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership was a two-tier process where the EU concluded bilateral association agreements within the multilateral framework of the Barcelona Declaration. The agreements and the Declaration pursued the same objectives and complemented each other.

In 2003, this coherent policy approach was challenged with the introduction of the ENP. In the beginning the idea was to create a policy towards European countries in the east that had not become EU members. The policy was to be called Wider Europe[9]. However, soon it was realised that if the EU wanted to have a coherent policy toward its neighbours it would be necessary to create a framework encompassing the Mediterranean countries too. This policy was called the European Neighbourhood Policy.

This enlargement of the geographical focus had its pros and cons. The pro was that the EU would avoid giving its southern partners the impression that they were left behind by creating a privileged policy framework for Eastern European countries only. The con was that the neighbourhood policy was to cover such a heterogeneous group of partners that it would be difficult to make it really coherent. In addition, the ENP had to tackle a paradox: whereas relations with Mediterranean countries were more advanced with, notably, free trade agreements, relations with Eastern European countries, although less developed, benefited from the “European perspective,” that is, the possibility for some of the eastern partners to become EU members, an opportunity unavailable to the Southern Mediterranean.

The ENP intended and still intends to apply a methodology similar to the Enlargement policy which owes its clout to its ability to push reforms that will lead to EU membership. However, what the ENP can offer, at best, is a complex system of medium and long-term incentives tending to favour democratic and market-oriented reforms, but without a perspective of future membership.

The other main feature of the ENP is differentiation, i.e., the possibility to adapt the reform programme embodied in the national action plans (the key and not-legally-binding document of the ENP) to the characteristics of each country and its willingness to agree and implement reforms. This differentiation is more theoretical than real since the often lengthy and unprioritised action plans constitute quite similar documents for the various countries involved.

The common Euromed policy was definitively reversed by the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in 2008, with exactly the opposite approach: i.e., no reform agenda within a framework of intergovernmental collaboration.

The main novelty of the UfM was the introduction of three institutional measures: (1) to hold summits of Euro-Mediterranean Heads of State and Government every two years; (2) the establishment of a joint secretariat; and (3) that of a co-presidency, one from the North (the EU) and one from the South (a non-EU country). [10]

Therefore, while the reform agenda was left for the ENP, a sort of real-politick and “project-oriented” approach prevailed in the UfM’s multilateral framework. More than specialisation or division of labour, the different terms of reference of both frameworks reflected the policy shift operated at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006. Between 2002 and 2005 the priority was to promote reforms in the Arab world. The idea behind this policy was encapsulated in the remark made by the US Secretary of State Rice in Cairo in 2005 when she said that “for 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”[11]

Very soon though, from 2006, this policy was gradually reviewed after the difficulties experienced in the democratic processes in Iraq and Afghanistan and the good results of both the “independent” (actually Muslim Brotherhood) candidates in the Egyptian elections and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2005, and Hamas’ election victory in 2006 in Palestine. The cartoon crisis, orchestrated mainly by the Syrian and Egyptian regimes, also had a significant impact in Europe, together with the absence of Arab Heads of State in the 2005 Barcelona Summit, held under the UK Presidency.

The battle of ideas and the competition between social models in the southern Mediterranean are at their highest levels since the beginning of the transitions

The question now is whether EU interests are better served by keeping these two policy frameworks separated or relatively autonomous from each other, or whether there is a need to make a real effort to merge these policy initiatives into one comprehensive scheme.  

The Challenges Ahead

After the Arab Spring and the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone, the ENP and the UfM have been through testing times.

On the one hand, as a result of the crisis, “a more introverted EU is not only less capable to performing well externally; it is also overlooked by other countries.”[12] Moreover, as mentioned by the European Policy Scoreboard, with the crisis “Europe does not believe it can afford the more generous approach it took in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989.”[13]

On the other hand, the major and probably more lasting effect of the process of political emancipation known as the Arab Spring has been and will be the fragmentation of the political landscape in the Southern Mediterranean. In the internal politics, this fragmentation becomes a major polarisation between secular and religious camps. At the regional level, the fragmentation translates into a multipolar Mediterranean where the EU competes for influence with Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and the Gulf, together with the traditional and still predominant security role of the US.

To put it in simple terms, for Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, their EU neighbourhood is less significant and has less impact than their Middle Eastern Neighbourhood. As expressed by Kristina Kausch, “Brussels’ policies towards the region are based on the implicit assumption that a continued dominant European position in relations with Southern Mediterranean partner countries can be taken for granted (…) this view is mistaken.”[14]

It is true to say, though, that in the Maghreb, Europe’s influence is stronger. Tunisia and Morocco, for example, still look to Europe for their political and economic horizons, even if in the case of the former, polarisation not only means opposite views on the role of religion but also diverging views on the country’s future international orientation.

In sum, today the ENP and the UfM are challenged not only by the EU’s relatively diminished reputation and influence, but also by the increased competition for influence from other emerging international players.

Yet the unpredictable regional dynamics make it more necessary than ever to produce a stable, coherent and consistent EU policy offer for the region. In the opinion of Paul Salem “the region is among the most disordered in the world and has no cooperative political, security or economic framework.”[15] And, as it happens, this region is the neighbouring region of Europe to the south of the continent; one in which Europe’s economic interests and security are at stake. From a European perspective, the region clearly and urgently needs a platform of cooperation for the Arab-Mediterranean transitions. This framework should revolve around the centre of gravity and influence of the EU, assuming the EU is willing and able to invest in such a political project and that the Arab countries are sufficiently attracted to it.

The UfM, a “political animal” created to respond to other needs[16], could be the multilateral structure that the EU and the Mediterranean countries can use to shape a collaborative agenda; an agenda in which the EU coherently pursues its objectives in the region. For this to happen, the participant countries need to reinvigorate the regional political process, and this will certainly be facilitated if the Middle East Peace Process negotiations get back on track.

EU Political Capital

The battle of ideas and the competition between social models in the Southern Mediterranean are at their highest levels since the beginning of the transitions. It is in these decisive moments when the EU ought to use its political capital in trying to influence political transitions. And this political capital, despite the setbacks of recent years, is not small:

First, the web of agreements between the EU and the Mediterranean Partner Countries and the long-standing cooperation with them, including the work done within the ENP and the collective endeavour of the UfM. 

Second, the economic presence of the EU and its Member States in the countries of the region. For the majority, the EU is still the main partner, the largest investor, the strongest goods and services supplier and client, and the main source of tourism.

Third, the EU is the largest source of funding of non-military cooperation programmes.

Fourth, cultural and civil society ties are strong and growing.

Fifth, the EU is listened to. Again, as reflected by the replies of southern actors and experts in the Survey conducted by the IEMed, they would like a more active involvement of the EU in the transitions in the Southern Mediterranean.  

EU Strategic Objectives

This political capital is now being increasingly used as shown by the mediation work done by the HR/VP Ashton in Egypt, where no other international player has tried as hard as the EU to reconcile the positions of the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular political forces. And it has to be put at the service of the EU’s strategic objectives:

In the political area, the EU has a strong interest in helping transitions to proceed smoothly and avoid major setbacks. The EU’s insistence on favouring an inclusive political transition should be seen as a clear message to those in Egypt and elsewhere in the region that there will not be sustainable democracies if political Islam is not included[17]. But it is also a message to Islamist parties that have won elections in recent years thanks to the Arab Spring movements, that a political culture of “the-winner-takes-all” is doomed to fail. As mentioned by Lurdes Vidal in her dossier of this Yearbook, Islamist parties in the Arab world have to complete a double transition: first, a transition from opposition to government; second, a transition from social/religious movements to political parties. Both are important. The second transition is essential since it is the one that would imply the assumption of the principles of modern democracy by political Islam, in other words, that would democratise Islamism.

In the security field, the EU is the most interested international player in the resolution of the remaining regional conflicts. The Middle East conflict is still preventing comprehensive regional cooperation in the Mediterranean. The Western Sahara conflict is averting the much needed development of the Maghreb Union that could become an important partner for the EU and a strong driver of regional integration. But above all, the civil conflict in Syria, with important ramifications in the neighbouring countries and beyond, constitutes a critical threat to regional stability and peace.

In the economic area, the EU’s main interests lie in the macro-economic stabilisation of the countries of the region and in promoting a real, irreversible and verifiable South-South economic integration process. The EU constitutes the world’s major economic and democratic block and no other institution can boast its experience and credibility in this field.

In the cultural area, the EU has been the first to promote a common institution for inter-cultural dialogue (the Anna Lindh Foundation) in the Mediterranean. With a significant Arab and Muslim population, the mounting problem of Islamophobia and the worrying increase of far right parties in Europe, the EU has a keen interest to build bridges of dialogue to pull down the walls of clichés and misunderstandings that still prevail.

And finally, in the area of mobility and migration, there is an urgent need to continue the efforts, especially with Maghreb countries, with the goal of facilitating the former and preventing illegal forms of the latter. This dialogue is a priority for the Southern Mediterranean partners, but it is also in the interest of the EU to put aside an issue in which too often it acts and reacts in a defensive manner, raising justified frustrations in the Arab-Mediterranean countries.


The Irish political thinker and philosopher Edmund Burke said that the superiority of the British system lay in the fact that it was not the product of conscious planning but developed over a great length of time by a great variety of accidents. In the same vein, the 9 May 1950 Declaration by the then French Foreign Affairs Minister Robert Schuman stated that “L’Europe ne se fera pas d’un coup, ni dans une construction d’ensemble: elle se fera par des réalisations concrètes créant d’abord des solidarités de fait.” Both statements can be applied to the building of EU common foreign policies and structures.  

The Mediterranean was never a geopolitical backwater. But today, the conflict potential is moving from the international arena to national politics. This is a sign of normalisation. Traditional regressive and non-democratic powers want to prevent this trend. Bashar al-Assad’s establishment, for example, has an interest in internationalising the Syrian conflict and has succeeded so far in involving other powers to defend his regime. Others have tried and will try to divert pressure and will blame international interventions when confronted with domestic demands for change and democratisation. However, neither national politics nor international relations will be the same after the Arab Spring. Peoples in the Southern Mediterranean have been irreversibly empowered and they know it. Europe is adapting to this new environment and European foreign policies and capabilities will also need to rapidly adapt. But Europe has not been and will probably never be a traditional power. Its influence will depend, more than in any other case, on the credibility and the consistency of its external action. If it is able to act based on its values and principles, the same values and principles that were behind the creation of the European project in the 1950s, it will have more chances to succeed in helping to create a stable, peaceful and democratic neighbourhood.


[1] Thomas Carothers in his paper “The End of the Transition Paradigm” is maybe one of the most prominent proponents of this view.

[2] “A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood” Joint Communication by the High Representative and the European Commission.

[3] See a full account of the EU response to the Libyan crisis in the Instituto Affari Internazionali paper by Nicole Keonig of July 2011 and in the European Policy Centre paper by Erik Brattberg of June 2011.

[4] Obviously, the EU is not the only foreign policy being tested following the Syrian conflict. As pointed out by Muriel Asseburg of the German Institute for International Security Affairs in Berlin, Iran lost a great deal in Syria since its alliance with Hamas was seriously undermined when the latter refused to rally behind the Syrian regime. As a consequence of the Syrian conflict, Turkey was unable to maintain its “zero problems” approach with its neighbours and now its border with the country has been severely destabilised. Israel too, lost its hostile but reliable neighbour confronting a strongly unstable neighbourhood; not to mention Russia and its contentious stance to prevent any meaningful UN resolution against the regime.

[5] The paper “Dealing with Political Islam” by Timo Behr offers a full analysis of EU policies regarding political Islam until 2010.

[6] See Council conclusions on Egypt of 22 July 2013 and the declaration of 14 July.

[7] In this sense it is significant that while the African Union suspended Egypt’s activities at the organisation, the EU did not initiate any measures in the framework of the EU-Egypt Association Agreement. I do not here wish to say the AU was right and the EU was not, only that international organisations neither judge nor act in the same way when faced with the same political realities.

[8] Institutionalisation or Intergovernmental Decision-taking in Foreign Policy: The Implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. European Foreign Affairs Review, 2011.

[9] See Communication by the European Commission COM (2003) 104 of 11 March 2003.

[10] The first measure is on hold since no summits have been held since the July 2008 inaugural summit in Paris. However the other two measures are now in place with one important improvement, the assumption by EU institutions of the EU co-presidency of the UfM.

[11] Speech by the US Secretary of State Rice at the American University of Cairo on 20 June 2005.

[12] Michele Comelli of the Instituto Affari Internazionali. Policy Paper 68: Potential and limits of EU policies in the Neighbourhood, 19 February 2013.

[13] Brookings Institution, February 2012.

[14] Papers IEMed no. 18. Joint Series with EuroMesCo. April 2013.

[15] Paul Salem in the May 2012 Policy Outlook, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[16] See the Toulon speech of 2007 on “la Union de la Méditerrannée” by the then candidate to the Presidency of the Republic, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy.

[17] Inclusive and inclusivity appears several times in the EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on Egypt of 22 July 2013.