Challenges and Prospects of Euro-Arab Relations in Times of Crisis

In the panel session on Europe & MENA relations at the 2016 Dahrendorf Symposium, Cilja Harders (Professor for Political Science, Director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics, Free University; Berlin; Co-chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group), Annette Jünemann (Professor for Political Science and International Relations, Helmut-Schmidt University, Hamburg), Lina Khatib (Head of the Middle East/North Africa Programme, Chatham House, London) and Michael Köhler (Director, Neighbourhood-South, European Commission; Professor for Europe and the Mediterranean, College of Europe, Brugge) discussed current challenges and prospects for Euro-Arab relations in times of crisis.

To kick off the discussion Harders, counter-intuitively, asked the panelists to outline what works well in EU-MENA relations. Jünemann emphasized the numerous social interactions, manifested in intensive intellectual exchange through networks and personal contacts. As such, the Euro-Mediterranean space has become vividly transnational. Khatib made a similar point but concentrated more on the political level, highlighting that the EU has been increasingly supportive of the region’s civil society and has paid much more attention to grassroots, youth movements and local forms of youth engagement. Köhler, in turn, welcomed the new ‘sense of pragmatism’ that in his opinion now characterises EU-MENA relations. He sees a ‘joint willingness’ within Europe to discard the idealist approach in order to move forward and ‘get things done’ in some specific areas such as migration, security/terrorism, trade and investment. He praised the growing cooperation in the field of economics and energy. The EU has revised its European Neighborhood Policy in a much more inclusive way. It has organised a number of public consultations at various levels to make different voices heard; the Arab countries have been consulted and, more importantly, they have even submitted a joint paper based on common analysis. Köhler underscored that this is a significant achievement for countries which are so much divided in political and economic terms.

Köhler’s statement on a the new European approach triggered a stimulating debate amongst the panelists. Jünemann claimed that there was in fact no new European approach: the policy-making process may have become more inclusive, but the outcomes are the same. The European approach still relies heavily on intergovernmental relations and puts security first; issues such as the promotion of human rights and democracy are not as high on the policy-making agenda as they should be because, in the long term, it is only the rule of law which can provide stability and security. Jünemann observed a great divergence between what is said and done in Europe. She attributed this misguided approach to widespread misunderstanding about categories such as ‘the Arab’, ‘the migrant’ and ‘the region’. These oversimplified misconceptions have become deeply embedded in policies. According to Jünemann ‘we need to rethink these categories and put that into institutional design’ and she concluded ’we have not learned any lessons; the EU always has been very pragmatic’. Khatib was more cautious but in essence agreed with Jünemann, pointing out that the EU cannot ignore autocratic regimes and somehow has to deal with them pragmatically. Like Jünemann she argued that the EU has to widen its scope and engagement and must not turn a blind eye on human rights violations which are ultimately at the root of instability. Moreover, Khatib was very skeptical about any pragmatic approach that separates progress in different policy fields. By compartmentalizing policy-making, one misses the link between different policy areas. She pointed to the economic marginalisation of big societal groups which for example poses a big problem in Tunisia. It is declining incomes which drive people into the arms of ISIS; they have little choice, she argued, but ‘if you invest in Tunisia, you will also fight terrorism’.

Köhler, in return, defended a new ‘realpolitik’ approach. He pointed out that Europe has less and less influence in the region. Europe and the US simply no longer have the same political leverage that they enjoyed about 10-15 years ago: ‘We cannot shape the region as [we] would like to, so what can be done?’ Current problems, such as the ‘migration crisis’ in Libya, cannot be tackled without the help of Egypt. The world has become multi-polar and more complex, so policymakers must adapt to this new environment and forge cooperation. Furthermore, problems need to be dealt with quickly, ‘as [a] policymaker you do not have the luxury to consider only long-term questions’. Köhler, however, also pointed out that a ‘realpolitik’ approach should not exclude – and has not excluded – civil society. He argued that the EU spent about 5% of development aid on local civil societies; indeed were it not for EU support, there would not be a civil society. Köhler also emphasized the difficulties of working with autocratic regimes; drawing a parallel with the French Revolution he asserted that positive change can be achieved but it may take a long time.

Various comments from the audience praised or criticized the changing nature of European ‘pragmatism’. Some saw EU policies as being highly paternalistic, whereas others interpreted them as not outcome-oriented enough. After two hours of a lively and stimulating discussion, Harders all too early had to close the debate and concluding that ‘we remain pessimistic in our minds, but we are optimistic in our hearts’.

About the author: Nikolas Scherer is a Research Associate for the Dahrendorf EU-MENA Working Group.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.