chapter  43
15 Pages

The European Union and Democracy Promotion: Readjusting to the Arab Spring

WithTobias Schumacher

The outbreak in 2011 of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) impacted strongly on the European Union (EU) and its relations with the countries in this region. While the southern Mediterranean, due to its geographical proximity and its legacy of colonial rule, has always ranked quite highly on the EU’s foreign policy agenda, the recent upheavals in almost all Arab Mediterranean societies have ultimately made the southern neighbourhood the EU’s key foreign policy priority. For the first time ever, the EU felt compelled to explicitly call upon its longstanding authoritarian partners to respect the democratic aspirations of their peoples. For years it had systematically avoided such public announcements as a consequence of its close and rather complex relations with Arab Mediterranean rulers and its predominant obsession with short-term stability. The seemingly contagious spillover effect of Tunisia’s democratization into neighbouring societies, however, made the EU and the governments of its then 27 member states gradually aware that the ‘democracy promotion landscape’ (Burnell 2011: 4) in their southern neighbourhood was changing rapidly and they had to adjust to new actors and new dynamics. This lesson-drawing brought results at the European Commission (‘the Commission’ from here on) through its Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). For the first time in 18 years of institutionalized Euro-Mediterranean relations, it has engaged in an unprecedented display of self-criticism, acknowledging that the EU’s democracy promotion efforts in the southern Mediterranean had by and large failed (Füle 2011). Only some months later, in the wake of the first free and fair elections in Tunisia, yet a third novelty in Euro-Mediterranean relations presented itself. Confronted with the convincing victory of Tunisia’s Al-Nahdha Party in the parliamentary elections of October 2011, the Commission was now aware that ‘through democratic contests of power, Islamists, along with other democrats, are transforming the Arab Spring from an amorphous moral tumult to an institutionalised democratic process’ (Sadiki 2011). In most cases the EU abandoned its longstanding policy of non-engagement with Islamist actors, and

acknowledged them as a legitimate political force and new political interlocutors (Ashton and Füle 2011a; Behr 2013). Responding to these developments, this chapter provides an overview of the EU’s

response to the outbreak of the Arab Spring and Arab uprisings and discusses whether the EU’s newfound rhetoric is matched by substantial changes in its democracy promotion policies and democracy promotion commitment towards the countries of the southern Mediterranean during the period of 2011 to 2013. It argues that the EU was quick in engaging in a declaratory approach and presenting a new neighbourhood strategy with the publication, on 8 March 2011, of a joint communication under the promising title ‘Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean’ – that is, less than two months after the fall of Tunisian President Bin Ali. Nevertheless, neither this approach nor this strategy, nor the subsequently adopted ‘New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood’, with which the latter converged, has made EU democracy promotion policies in its southern neighbourhood more effective. This does not mean that, in issue-areas that do not relate directly to the nature of the partner country’s political system, the process of policy convergence (underpinning the ENP since its inception in 2003) is also necessarily affected in a negative way. As has been argued elsewhere, the selection and adoption of sets of rules and regulations can take place within trans-governmental functional cooperation, thereby allowing the EU to promote democratization indirectly ‘through the “back door” of joint problem-solving’ (Freyburg et al 2009) – and it can also occur for other reasons than mere engagement on the part of the EU (Barbé et al 2009). What this means, however, is that the EU’s direct democracy promotion efforts in the southern Mediterranean in the context of the Arab Spring and Arab uprisings continue to perpetuate the structural weaknesses and contradictions of past policy approaches.