The EU and North Africa: defining the criteria for effective partnership

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With a persistent economic downturn spreading across North Africa, ensuing social disruptions and rising political instability especially in Egypt and Tunisia, one might wonder what role Western actors are trying to play in the region. As the new US Secretary of State traveled to Egypt and pushed for an end of divisive political bickering on the road to new parliamentary elections, forcefully insisting on economic reforms to finalize  a $4.8 billion IMF loan, Europe was nowhere to be seen.

However, on March 20th, following its own bureaucratic schedule, the European Commission came out with an assessment of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the annual reports on the progress status of a number of ENP countries, among which Egypt.

The EU openly recognizes it must work with other partners in order to support political and economic transitions. Many external actors are engaged and contribute to shape the pace and direction of political change, first and foremost the US and Gulf countries. With the creation in 2012 of EU bilateral “task forces” with Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, we have seen greater coordination among international donors in terms of economic support. What has not (yet) materialized  is greater multilateral political coordination in terms of which  joint messages to get across to these countries’ political establishments when democratic backsliding occurs. The EU acknowledges that economic and political developments are intertwined and tries to influence the latter by focusing on the former. Brussels has so far committed 3.5 billion euros to the southern neighborhood for the 2011-2013 period and more recently 300 million euros in smaller grants. Compared to that, on March 10th, the US agreed to allot a package of $190 million in aid to Egypt from a commitment of $450 million aimed at industrial support.

Brussels is investing energies in kick-starting negotiations with Morocco and Tunisia on Deep Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, but negotiations will take years before completion and entry into force. In the meantime, a recent IMF study suggested that output gaps will persist for around five years in countries which experienced revolutions, adding that political instability directly lowers productivity growth and that social unrest correlates with sharp deterioration in macroeconomic outcomes. In order to compensate for these delays in economic growth, short-term measures should be adopted in the context of a broader dialogue over the kind of structural economic reforms to be undertaken. The priority is clearly to stimulate employment and reduce public expenditure, and ways to achieve these goals should also be openly discussed by the EU - not just with governments but with the private sector and North African societies as a whole. The EU’s track record in this respect can be improved: for instance, while civil society representatives are expected to fully participate in the task forces’ dialogue and negotiations, when last November the Egyptian government withdrew the invitation to local NGOs to discuss economic and political matters within this format, the EU kept silent. Invoking national inclusive approaches by these governments should be complemented by demanding that all social and political actors be part of international negotiations, with a view to maximizing the impact on societies as a whole.

With its May 2011 Communication on the Southern Neighbourhood, the EU introduced a reference to “deep democracy” as a conceptual benchmark for economic and political integration with ENP countries (always keeping the membership perspective off the table). By refusing to take at face value democratic claims based only on free and fair elections, the EU has abandoned a purely procedural understanding of democracy and accountable governance, setting a higher standard for its partners wishing to create closer relations. Commissioner Stefan Fuhle and Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton have complained that the Egyptian transition is scarcely inclusive and that there are serious setbacks in how the process is unfolding. Milder criticisms have been expressed to other countries in the region.

By entering into uncharted territory (because specific democracy-related benchmarks have never been clearly set within the ENP), the EU is attempting to strike a difficult balance between respecting the results of democratic electoral processes without foregoing the possibility of expressing disagreement in those cases where the behavior of new regimes does not meet  expectations. One should however notice that by doing this, the EU risks conflating two concepts, liberalism and democracy, which have developed symbiotically only in Western contexts but should keep their conceptual distinctiveness. As underlined by many independent commentators in North Africa, one often sees democratic albeit illiberal Islamists countered by liberal but antidemocratic secular leftists. Indeed, it is time to start reflecting on how to respond to the emergence of “illiberal democracies”. In order to qualify for a “more for more” approach by the EU, is Brussels arguing that endogenous developments in the Maghreb should replicate historically contingent Western patterns? This is not to say that Brussels, or Washington, should refrain from expressing their preferences in terms of how conditionality should work or negotiating political strings attached to economic packages, but these linkages should be based on explicit understandings of the range of acceptable outcomes of these countries’ political trajectory, without forgetting that liberal democracy is only one shape democracy can take.