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Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author and editor-in-chief Iva Kopraleva

EU’s response to the wave of Arab Revolutions has been criticized from multiple directions for being slow and insufficiently coherent. Nevertheless, one has to keep in mind the unique nature of the Union as an international actor when assessing its activities on the international scene. The EU possesses different instruments for external action – some more effective than others under certain circumstances. The Union attempted take action in the region of North Africa through at least three European external relations frameworks – the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the Common Security and Defence Policy and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Starting our analysis with the ENP, the main purpose of this policy is to develop the cooperation between the EU and its neighbours. The countries which participate in it (including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia) can benefit from closer economic integration with the EU, improved circulation of people across borders, financial assistance and technical cooperation by complying with annual Action Plans negotiated between the country and the Union on bilateral basis. These Action Plans usually include a number of reforms which need to be implemented by the neighbouring country in exchange for closer ties with the EU. Due to the Arab Spring uprisings, the ENP was subjected to changes. A differentiated approach was introduced based on the principle “more for more” – the more reforms the country implements the more it can count on EU support. Moreover, the idea of negative conditionality was introduced – EU’s assistance can be revoked if the country violated democratic principles. Overall, the focus of the reform was to help bring about deep and sustainable democracy in the partner countries. These efforts to transform ENP have been heavily criticized because the reformed ENP is not considered to be fundamentally different from the old one. Moreover, the funds that are provided to the partner countries under this framework are deemed very insufficient. In conclusion, even though a reform was implemented as a result of the Arab uprisings, its impact and effectiveness remain questionable.

Turning our attention to CSDP, this policy was designed to give the EU the military and civilian tools to respond to international crises. Under the CSDP framework the Union can launch military and civilian missions in order to manage, observe or facilitate the resolution of internal and international conflicts. Nevertheless, in the case of the Arab Revolutions no missions were established in the region with the exception of EUBAM Libya – a border assistance mission launched in May 2013, long after the NATO-led military intervention in the country has come to an end. This is usually explained on the one hand, by the fact that the launch of a CSDP mission requires a consensus between all EU member states which is most of the time hard to achieve, and, on the other hand, by the sensitive nature of collective external actions. In this context, it can be argued that the CSDP can be useful only if there is absolute agreement between the member-states or when the issue is of sufficiently low saliency in order to not provoke substantial opposition. Therefore, in the case of the Arab Revolutions, where the salience is high and a consensus between all the member-states rather unlikely (given Germany’s non-interventionist position in the case of Libya, for example), the CSDP turned out to be an ineffective response instrument.

The third available to the Union response framework is the relatively newly established European External Action Service. Catherine Ashton, which is the head of this institution and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, entered in the role of an international mediator. She discussed the situation in the North Africa region with a number of high government officials from different counties including US Secretary of State at the time, Hilary Clinton, the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov and Turkish Foreign Minister, Davutoglu. More recently, she was the first one to meet with former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi after he has been overthrown by the military on July 3. These activities show that, firstly, the High Representative (HR) has enough leeway for autonomous action in order to successfully become the mediator in complicated international situations and secondly, that she has managed to establish herself as an important and highly visible participant in the foreign policy scene. Therefore, Catherine Ashton and the EEAS, reacted in a coherent and adequate way to the events in North Africa to the extent of their prerogatives. The HR’s actions are decisions were not hindered by long-lasting negotiations between the member states or the different EU institutions which gave her the opportunity become a widely recognized international mediator.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the effectiveness of EU’s response to the Arab Revolution depends heavily on the framework which is employed for the realization of said response. More specifically, the decision-making mechanisms which are very different in the case of ENP, CSDP and EEAS can be considered a decisive factor in this regard. In other words, the higher the number of veto players in the decision-making process, the harder it is to agree on a joint action. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely for member-states to sacrifice their veto power on security and defence issues in the name of a more effective and coherent common EU foreign policy.

Image source: Transatlantic Academy