The relations between the European Union and the North African and Middle Eastern (MENA) countries are multi-faceted and need more support and collaboration. That is one takeaway from the panel ‘Challenges and Prospects of Euro-Arab Relations’ on which regional experts and professionals discussed the EU-MENA relations in the wake of the Arab Uprisings in 2011.
Chaired by Cilja Harders, Professor and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics, Freie Universität Berlin, the three panellists Annette Jünemann, Professor for Political Science and International Relations, Helmut Schmidt University, Lina Khatib, Head of the Middle East/North Africa Programme at Chatham House and Michael Köhler, Director of Neighbourhood-South at the European Commission and Professor at the College of Europe, explored prominent social, political and economic changes on both sides of the Mediterranean.
The political transformations in the MENA region have exacerbated many tensions that had previously been hidden under the surface: tensions between religious and secular forces, rich and poor, state and non-state actors. These tensions have now become subject of open political and even violent struggles. The processes of change and the subsequent absence of the rule of law, thus, has led to widespread personal and economic insecurity. Foreign companies shy away from investing in the region. The lack of economic opportunities, in turn, aids radical groups.
The panellists pointed out that much more cooperation is needed to slower the downward spiral and stabilize the MENA region’s political systems and economies. They emphasized that political and economic stability, security and rule of law are all interlinked in a myriad of ways and are dependent on one another. This downswing needs to be stopped in order to increase stability and security. They also highlighted the positive role inter-regional free trade agreements could play in providing incentives for foreign investors in the region.
Yet, everybody on the panel agreed that the EU-MENA cooperation may not be informed by the ‘security first’ approach that once informed European policies. This European approach has had a stabilizing effect on the authoritarian regimes and only contributed to overshadow deep-rooted tensions that have come to the forefront now. Panellists argued that it requires a more differentiated EU foreign policy towards the MENA region to effectively deal with local specificities and sub-regional dynamics. There should be a tailored foreign policy approach to every country within the MENA region. It requires a foreign policy worth its name to tackle the challenges the two regions face today: political instability, migration and terrorism
Panellists, however, had their doubts about the EU’s political leverage in the MENA region, given the numerous political players within. Europe’s influence in the region seems to be fading. This is partly the EU’s own fault as it has been unable or unwilling to deal with the region coherently, consistently and on equal terms.
We claim, the EU must change its strategy on cooperation and learn its lesson: Neither supporting an authoritarian regime in order to ensure stability in the short-run, nor an EU foreign policy that ignores the situation and regional actors on the ground will have a positive long lasting impact. And it will surely not improve the quality of life for the people. The EU should learn its lesson and turn to a more sustainable approach to cope with challenges.
About the authors
Rania Maria Schwippert, BA Kommunikations- und Politikwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin
Elora Schrauth, BA Politikwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin
Stefan Schärf, BA Politikwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin