The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership after the Arab Spring: How Can the EU Set Up a New Deal?

PDF downlaodJuliette Bisard*

POMEAS OP-ED, 27 February 2014

While uprisings were gaining ground in its South-Mediterranean neighboring countries, the EU surprisingly adopted an ambiguous reaction, between "spectatorship and actorness".1 As a main economic partner of Arab countries, the EU look after rooted links with them and kept influencing the region through its political conditionality to enhance economic liberalization and prevent from political instability, by supporting authoritarian regimes.

However, the EU came out as a feeble actor in the democratic transitions in the region: it did not appear as the only democratic model to follow2 and faced difficulties to endorse an appropriate strategy in a changing Arab world. What was the EU reaction to the gradually Arab Spring, and how can the EU deal with the countries which experienced such upheavals?

The Brussels' first reaction was passivity. The EU foreign policy goes through deep divisions among the member states. In the wake of the uprisings, Brussels was sidelined within its own structure by the member states and had loads of difficulties to coalesce the twenty-eight countries around a single strategy. Even if the EU equipped itself in 2004 with the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), such difficulties prompted a "wait-and-see attitude", confused and incoherent.3 Brussels was sidelined by the revolting countries as well, for having supported Mubarak, Gaddafi, or Ben Ali among others, while seeking their own interest. Therefore, some member states such as France immediately reacted by supporting security control in Tunisia and political dialogue in Egypt, because they thought that a democratic transition with overthrown leaders remained possible. Furthermore, foreign policy was not Brussels' priority at that time. Going through the Eurozone crisis, both the member states and the institutions faced domestic troubles that explain the late answer to the Arab uprisings.

The EU's attitude harmed itself as a democratic normative power. Although political conditionality was required by the EU in each contractual agreement signed with Mediterranean countries4, it was obviously rhetoric and never framed a comprehensive policy.5 In fact, Association Agreements and Action Plans have always been overwhelmingly dominated by economic and security priorities (migration, counterterrorism, energy, etc.), which surpassed political dialogues and contacts between the peoples.6 Cooperation was provided mainly through governmental channels of the authoritarian regimes. However, the latter took advantages of this cooperation and stopped distributing financial aid to NGO dealing with democracy and human rights in Tunisia, for instance.7 By toppling authoritarian regimes, the Arab Springs overwhelmed the EU's top-down strategy and imposed a renewal.

After that confusing moment, the European Commission turned into a more active player. The High Representative, Catherine Asthon, and some EU member states opened discussions with new relevant political actors in the region, such as the Arab League, the Cairo Group or the Libyan Transitional National Council.8 Catherine Asthon unveiled a Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity in 20119, whereby the EU's institutions were supposed to play a pro-active role in the southern neighborhood through an "incentive-based approach"10. The more the Arab countries implement reforms, the more they would count on the EU's support, which consists of market access, free trade agreements, etc. On the contrary, mobility partnerships appear as a weak offer. Apart from a €1 billion assistance and a Support to Partnership, Reform and Inclusive Growth (SPRING) providing €350 million for 2011-2013, this allegedly renewed partnership rested on the same "carrots-stick" basis, which could not fit with the changing context anymore.

The main innovation which constitutes a door opened for a renewed relationship is the beefing-up of cooperation with civil society.11 Brussels unquestioned reforms needed to be built democratically through new channels in a bottom-up perspective. The first EU's attempt to launch a different political dialogue occurred in September 2011 when the EU-Tunisia Task Force met, to bring different stakeholders of EU-Tunisia relations, followed by a similar meeting with Jordan. These initiatives differ from the "EU's tools-based approach".12 The EU delegations in the region were reinforced and enlarged heightening the EU's comprehension of local realities and dialogues with local relays. A wider network of EU representatives in those countries would allow them to reek of civil society easily and implement more comprehensive policies. According to that perspective, the EU presented a Civil Society Facility (€22 million for 2011-2013). The goal is to develop cooperation projects and initiatives which have never been dealt before, such as education, justice or media.13

The EU has the opportunity to modify its policy, by holding up the rule-of-law implementation while keeping the newly and democratically elected governments. Although Arab countries rejected the EU's behavior, the Tunisian civil society perceives Europe as having a real interest in the Tunisian democratic transition.14 On the contrary, some member states backed up the coup d'état against the Egypt's President freshly elected Morsi, and the new leader Sisi is looking at the US assistance offer, as well as Algeria.15 Meanwhile, despite the lack of democratic improvements, fields of cooperation and agreements intensified between the EU and Morocco since 2011, the EU becoming a "pragmatic democracy promoter".16 All in all, the EU and the member states concerned are prone to accept less democratic but more stable countries to cooperate with17, while recent survey shows that the main interest of both EU countries and Mediterranean countries is free and fair elections, freedom of association, expression and assembly, while security is the last priority.18

The EU has to adopt a radically different strategy in a changing geopolitical context: the EU cannot base its policy on technocratic instruments, but rather on the new challenges.19 The EU's normative power is not denied in the region, but understood differently: instead of being a model, the EU is seen as a partner. While they accept the economic and social cooperation, the Tunisian civil society for instance refuses the EU's political interference.20 They want their "dignity revolution". The Arab countries are seeking their own national autonomy and identity in a post-colonial era.21 The EU would have more interest in helping those countries to find their own way, rather than imposing its own vision of politics and democracy. Europe needs to focus more on political, economic, social and cultural cooperation, rather than on security, counterterrorism and migration policies. In fact, the EU can ensure political and democratic stability in the region as a way to safeguard its own security. A depoliticized Euro-Mediterranean Partnership would be a missed opportunity for the EU to gain recognition as democracy-building actor.


1.Tobias Schumacher, "The EU and the Arab Spring, Between Spectatorship and Actorness, " Insight Turkey 3, No. 3 (2011): 107-119.
2.Timo Behr, "The European Union's Mediterranean Policies after the Arab Spring: Can the Leopard Change its Spots?," Amsterdam Law Forum 4, No. 2 (2012): 76-88.
4.Matthieu Voss, "Mint the gap! Assessing the implementation of the EU-Tunisian action plan in the field of political cooperation," L'Europe en formation 2, No. 356 (2010): 139-152.
5.Federica Bicchi, "Lost in Translation: EU Foreign Policy and the European Neighborhood Policy Post-Arab Spring," L'Europe en formation 1, No.371 (2014): 26-40.
6.Rosa Balfour, "EU Conditionality After the Arab Spring," Papiers IEMed, June, 2012, accessed February 20, 2015,
7.Voss, "Mint the gap!"
8.Balfour, "EU Conditionality."
9.Julia Simon, "The EU and its Southern Mediterranean Neighborhood – What kind of democracy promotion after the Arab Spring?," L'Europe en formation 1, No. 371 (2014): 58-81.
10.Becchi, "Lost in Translation."
11.Simon, "What kind of democracy."
12.Blafour, "EU Conditionality."
13.Laura-Theresa Krüger and Edmund Ratka, "The perception of European Policies in Tunisia After the Arab Spring," L'Europe en formation 1, No. 371 (2014) : 9-25.
15.Mansouria Mohkefi, "Algeria – An Unsteady Partner for Europe," ECFR Policy Brief, July, 2014, accessed February 20, 2015,
16.Silvia Colombo and Bernedetta Voltolini, " 'Business as usual' in EU Democracy Promotion Towars Morocco, Assessing the Limit's of the EU's Approach towards the Mediterranean after the Arab Uprisings," L'Europe en formation 1, No. 371 (2014): 41-57.
18."4th EuroMed Survey of Experts and Actors: Rethinking EuroMed policies in a Changed Mediterranean," IEMed, 2013, accessed on February 20, 2015,
19.Balfour, "EU Conditionality."
20.Krüger and Ratka, "The perception of European Policies."
21.Schumacher, "Between Spectatorship and Actorness."

*Juliette Bisard, IPC Research Assistant, student in Sciences Po Grenoble (M2 European Governance)