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The Arab Spring and the EU

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 4129 words Published: 10th Apr 2019

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Why did the EU fail to promote democracy during the Arab Spring?


Since its creation, the European Union has been trying to spread its model of liberal economics and democracy to their neighboring countries. The Middle East region has always been of vital importance for Europe due to migration, security and energy. We need to take into consideration that the Middle Eastern countries have a geographical proximity to Europe, therefore the young unemployed (due to nationalization in the 50’s and ISI programs), became the main sources of legal and illegal migration in EU countries.

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This migration became a security issue due to the economic crisis, unemployment, rise of populist parties in some European countries and spread of the radical political Islam inside European Muslim communities. Therefore, in order to improve the Arab countries’ situation, the EU tried to promote a reform through the “rule of law, an accountable government, freedom of expression and assembly and respect for human rights” (Hollis, 2012).

During the Arab Spring, people in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen and Syria, came out to the streets asking for freedom, dignity and justice. These revolts demonstrated that EU’s policies failed to work in Middle Eastern countries. While, since 1995 the EU tried to promote policies for a ‘shared prosperity’ and a decrease in unemployment in the Middle East, the reality was far from achieving this. Arab revolts in 2010-2011 were triggered due to authoritarian regimes, persistent and gross disparities in wealth and a high unemployment. Moreover, regarding human rights actions, Europe proved to favor regimes and practices that were intolerable to the majority of Arab society.


To understand how EU policies failed to promote shared prosperity and a decrease of unemployment, we need to analyze at least the 3 main policy instruments the Union promoted before the Arab uprisings.


The European Union made its first attempt for a coordinated action with Middle Eastern countries in 1995 when they signed a partnership with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and, the Palestinian Authority named the Barcelona Declaration which launched the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The goal of this partnership was to promote “regional stability through economic integration and democratization in a multilateral forum, including Israel” (Cavatorta & Rivetti, 2014). The EMP had three pillars, the “political and security cooperation to establish a common area of peace and stability”; “an economic and financial partnership to create an area of shared prosperity (including a free trade area)”; and “the enhancement of social and cultural ties, to develop human resources, promote understanding between cultures and facilitate interaction at the level of civil society” (Hollis, 2012).

The EMP partnership was created due to the Algerian failed liberalization and civil war in the 90s “which made EU policy-makers aware of the challenges emerging from instability” (Cavatorta, 2009). Moreover, according to Cavatorta and Rivetti (2014) “the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians induced the EU to promote multilateralism to bring about broader regional peace.”

Nevertheless, the partnership proved to be unequal, the Union created the path for the Mediterranean partner countries to follow, responding bilaterally. Moreover, the Mediterranean partner countries’ future economic growth depended on Europe since they had more to sell to the Union than to any other country due to geographical proximity.

Also, the creation of a shared prosperity and free trade area (to come into full effect by 2010) demonstrated that it privileged more the Union more than its partners. While the Union removed tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade in manufactured goods to enjoy a more rapid procedure, they also liberalized trade in agricultural products, one of the main exports of north African states, but it would be a slower procedure. While this seemed as a strategy from the Union to increase development inside Europe, the Mediterranean partner countries saw how their gap between standards of living widened. Moreover, economic growth policies under the EMP were based on “efficiency measures that actually cut jobs as opposed to generating them” (Hollis, 2012). Some commentators even thought that rather than looking after the Mediterranean partner’s needs, the partnership was an instrument for the Union to stop the flow of migrants from Arab countries to Europe by throwing money at the problem.

Political and security cooperation to establish a common area of peace and stability had not been met. Regarding regional security, there was a clear Arab resistance to cooperate with Israel due to their denial to end their occupation of the Palestinian occupied territories, the Golan Heights of Syria and the Sheba Farms claimed by Lebanon.

The promotion of an economic and financial partnership to create an area of shared prosperity and a free trade area was the only measurable impact. According to Hollis (2012) only some few economic reforms from the EMP had benefited ordinary people in the Arab Mediterranean partner countries.

Regarding the “enhancement of social and cultural ties, to develop human resources, promote understanding between cultures and facilitate interaction at the level of civil society”, only some cultural dialogue and civil society contacts had gone forward but with “limited results” (Hollis, 2012).


After 9/11, the European Union decided to launch in 2003-2004 a new instrument to deal with 16 of their Mediterranean partners, the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). The Union was realizing that middle eastern economies and political systems were very diverse and therefore, required a different approach. Moreover, while the US developed a 2004 Arab reform, the Union developed the ENP as a parallel initiative to promote “good governance, economic stability, democracy and human rights.” The ENP became the main vehicle for EU funds to Arab Mediterranean countries as long as they met the Action Plan conditions of government and economic reform and other issues affecting the country’s development. “The implementation of specific measures for migration control is among the conditions to be met by the MPCs in order to receive more EU-financial assistance.”

There was no warm response in the Arab World since Arab autocrats were against losing power in the name of democracy but, some Arab governments went along since the Union’s market was too important to them and the ENP gave them more access and aid. However, the ENP only opened privileged access to the EU market and cooperation on scientific research to Israel.

As Hollis (2012) pointed out, Egyptians “could not make a choice of the shortlist of ‘Action Plans’” and therefore, appealed to hard bargaining and in the process, “avoided accepting any internal political and judicial reforms they did not want”. On the other hand, Jordanians view the ENP as a chance to get “financial and technical assistance for introducing measures that would sit well with their own reform plan. Nevertheless, they weren’t capable of implementing all the measures of the Action plan.  Lebanon was also happy to sign since the government thought that having the Union on their side could strengthen their country towards their domestic rivals and Syrian interference.

However, the ENP Action plans did not succeed. The Union failed to understand that the laws and regulations promoted were a core value for the EU but might not necessarily make sense outside the union.


Recognizing the failure of the EMP, the EU re-launched the Barcelona process cooperation as the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in 2008. The UfM promoted economic integration through a “set of commercial projects” where Europeans and North Africans would work together on “economy, energy, infrastructure, transport and environment” areas. Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria (suspended), Tunisia and Turkey, among other non-Arab states from Eastern Europe, signed the new Union (European Commission, 2016). To elevate the partnership to an intergovernmental level, the UfM created a joint presidency among an EU and an Arab head of state working together with a new secretariat located in Spain. The first joint presidents, Sarkozy and Mubarak, worked to promote “more bureaucracy, attendant new costs and a focus on state-to-state diplomacy rather than business or civil society engagement.” Nevertheless, according to Hollis (2012) in 2011 the “UfM was dying”.

Summing up, the political and societal efforts of the EMP, ENP and UfM for promoting free and fair elections, pluralism, democracy, respect for the human rights or tolerance to religious, ethnic and other minorities were unsuccessful. Regarding the economic level of market economy and free trade, the three policy instruments had mixed results, many countries had economic success and high economic growth but their poverty population widespread too (Brtnick, 2011).

The trade liberalization promoted through the EMP, ENP and UfM, had several costs and benefits. Despite the domestic opposition to this liberalization, EU pushed this measures to be implemented and could have favored that the Mediterranean Arab partners governments to became more authoritarian. Only the elite befitted from these reforms and the EU adopted a soft approach towards authoritarian oil producers like Algeria because their economies rely on hydrocarbons of some Arab regions. All of these factors somehow led to the Arab uprisings.

Regarding security issues, Europe saw the Arab area as a security problem rather than an opportunity, Islamism, terrorism and migration were top issues of the political, security and societal levels of the foreign policy. The partnership main focus was to address the rise of Islamism as a destabilizing factor, the arms proliferation and Iran’s nuclear program and the Arab Israeli conflict. According to Brtnick (2011) “EU involved into its civil society and democratization programmed only that kind of persons and political forces who spoke a language that the Union wanted to hear. They ignored the Islamic civil society organized around mosques, Islamic societies and charities and Islamist Parties”.

EU’s attempts to promote democracy and human right in the Middle East did fail since authoritarianism is still somehow enduring in some of the regions. This failure was due to a poor policy coordination, contradictions in policies’ design, mistaken assumptions of their norms and the ability of middle eastern regimes to resist external pressure since the “EU ultimately preferred authoritarian stability to democratic messiness” (Cavatorta & Rivetti, 2014). There were “repeated delays and failure to fulfill obligations” due to “increasing cooperation and dependence on authoritarian regimes: rulers like Egyptian Hosni Mubarak, Tunisian Zen Din Ben Ali or even Libyan Muammar Qaddafi were perceived as important partners.” (Brtnick, 2011)


The Arab Spring revolts were not inspired by western countries, they were addressing domestic problems such as authoritarian regimes that repressed opposing ethnic groups, abuse of power, corruption, a huge unemployment, poverty and humiliation. Arabs were looking for solutions and a change of power.

Nevertheless, this revolts had a huge impact on the international community. Following their previous failed attempts, the EU reacted with two main documents. First of all, as an initial response to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt the EU launched “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”.  On the other side, since the ENP was dying by 2011, the EU also launched “A New Response to a Changing Neighborhood” modifying the ENP to the new realities the region was facing (Brtnick, 2011). Finally, the EU would also promote a communication based on the “Support for Partnership, Reforms and Inclusive Growth”.

The EU policies implemented once the Arab uprisings began, were to be coordinated by the European External Action Service (EEAS), responsible for “policy formulation and programming activities”, and the European Commission, responsible for the “implementation of programs and payments of funds”.

EU’s first attempt for “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”,controlled by the European EEAS and the Commission, offered an “incentive-based approach” (Bicchi, 2014) based on implementing more reforms that would be repaid with more cooperation and greater EU support for those complying countries in the Middle East. Those that committed to the reforms, were offered a “mobility partnership” (Bicchi, 2014) that would give them an “ease to legal migration” and would increase the funds and “market access” destined to the country through the negotiation of “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas” and a “Regulatory convergence” (Bicchi, 2014). Additionally, the ENP was “promoting legislative and regulatory approximation towards higher standards in all relevant areas and in particular to encourage the progressive participation of partner countries in the internal market” (Bicchi, 2014). On the other hand, the EU created a new program on the ENPI budgetary line, the ‘Support for Partnership, Reforms and Inclusive Growth’ (SPRING) to support “democratic transitions, economic growth and institution building”.

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Nevertheless, the new ENP, had the same principles applied and fewer funds disbursed against a worsening socio-economic situation. According to Bichhi (2014), this was because the uprisings caught the European Union in the middle of a huge economic crisis that “shook political and social foundations of domestic systems”. The outcome from the Arab uprising policies would be determined by this economic crisis in Europe that would dedicate fewer time to the neighboring region and had limited capacities to find results due to the uncertain future of the region and therefore, had limited capacities to create a “coherent political and economic response”.

Figure 1 – ENP Commitments & Payments

While the EU seemed to be implementing new policies to approach the Arab uprisings and promote their democratic model, specifically by incrementing EU’s funds’ commitments, the truth was that the actual payments of these commitments severely declined year by year.

First of all, the EU seemed to have a “time lap” among the programmed budget (a general indication of how much the EU would spend), their commitment (the budget committed for each country and for their different priorities), and the actual payments (the transferred funds from the EU to the country). For example, for the Financial Protocols signed in the 90’s the EU had the actual payments completed by 2010.  This could mean that the EU could take more than 10 years to actually pay all of their commitments. Moreover, according to Bicchi (2014) the “the more difficult the task, the more likely the EU is to under-spend”. The author sets an example about how the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) in the Mediterranean countries underspent a 25% of their 3.7 million commitments in the early years of the program (2001-2005) for their promotion of democracy and human rights. They “never reached the ground and were lost as the budgetary deadlines were missed” (Bicchi, 2014).

Nevertheless, in Figure 1, we can appreciate that the funds committed increased a 50% from 2011 to 2012. The ENP commitments remained pretty high until 2015 when they decided to decline the commitments in order to “absorb the budget cuts” (Bicchi, 2014). However, the funds actually paid decreased once the Arab spring began, from 2009 to 2013 there were more than 1,3 billion committed that were not spent. In 2014, the EU declared that it would take about 4 years to clear the last payments committed in 2013 and in 2015, they decided to cut spendings. 2014 resulted to be a low year for the Union since there were new programs and procedures waiting to be implemented.


Moreover, SPRING commitments were under the ENP budget lines instead of creating new and separate ones. While SPRING looked to support “democratic transformation, institution building and sustainable and inclusive growth and economic development” they faced limitations in their absorbing capacity too due to EU’s reluctance to pay the funds. Therefore, the 2013 commitments resulted more restrictive than previous ones. Moreover, while the funds’ destination was clear, it was difficult to know if they were actually spent and on what (Bicchi, 2014).


As seen above, the EU did have a role in triggering the Arab revolts but not intentionally. Rather than exporting their main values of freedom, democracy and rule of law, the Union’s policies towards the region betrayed them. They have proved to prioritize their own prosperity and stability at expenses of the Arab world’s own prosperity and stability. As stated above, the creation of a free trade area privileged more the EU than the Arab countries since, while the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade manufactured goods (which benefited the EU) proceeded rapidly, the liberalization of trade in agricultural products (main export of North Africa) proceeded slowly. Moreover, only Israel benefited from the ENP with an open access to the EU market and cooperation on scientific research.

Economic liberalization did not have the desired outcomes since the reforms in authoritarian regimes triggered the rise of social conflicts across the Arab countries. Only the elite benefited from the reforms and fewer conditions and penalties for non-compliance were applied to authoritarian oil producers due to the EU’s reliance on hydrocarbons and authoritarian rulers like Mubarak, Ben Ali or Kaddafi that were perceived as important partners. EU’s prosperity goal towards the region also failed since the gaping between living standards widened rather than diminished.

On the other hand, political and societal policies were also unsuccessful since EU did not achieve their implementation of “free and fair elections, pluralism, democracy, respect of human rights or tolerance to religious, ethnic and other minorities” in the region. An example of it could be el-Sisi in Egypt and his latest elections in 2018 where he won with a 97% of the votes while he arrested or forced to drop anyone who tried to run against him for presidency (he actually put a pro-Sisi candidate to run against him so he did not get 100% of the votes).

The EU’s role in the Arab uprisings was limited and shook the Arab world. As seen previously, there was a strong disconnection among the initial discourse for developments of their new approaches and the actual policy implementation which has shown a lack of vision towards the Arab countries and a decrease of their financial commitments.

When the Arab spring stroke, instead of giving more privileges to the most complying countries the EU gave the same or less than they were giving before the uprisings began.  While the Arab countries had more economic needs following the revolts due to production stoppage and damage of physical properties (for example, in Tunisia the uprisings cost about 1,6 billions), the Union decreased their payments. Moreover, Europe has not been able to innovate their main policies addressed to the region, they applied the same principles with fewer funds paid facing a worst socio-economic situation.

It is clear that the EU promised more than it could deliver. The political chaos that the Arab spring countries were suffering led to an uncertainty and shrinking absorption capacity for the funds expected to work over a medium to long period. Meaning that, when the EU faced this political chaos, they were more reluctant to apply processes and were more unlikely to deliver funds in the short term since the political priorities of the regions could shift very quickly and therefore, made it difficult for the EU to plan their activities. On the other hand, the increase of funds led to an increase of conditionality for the payments, meaning that, the initial conditions for the funds had not been met and therefore, the EU had no option but not to spend and made it difficult to know when and where the conditions could be met.

In conclusion, the EU failed to promote democracy and its core values towards the Middle East because, before the Arab uprisings they looked for their own benefits and to privilege those important partners they relied on despite if they were authoritarian or not leading to a widespread of poverty where only the elite benefited. Moreover, the EU did not look at each country individually, they approached the Middle East as a whole and they should have taken into consideration that each case was different, i.e. Tunisia and Egypt had very different outcomes from the uprisings. Instead of promoting democracy and supporting or sanctioning those regimes that did not comply to their reforms promoting their core values, they committed to payments they could not fulfil and maintained the same policies when the region was changing and facing a worse socio-economic situation than before the uprisings when the Union was privileging those important for them.


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  • European Comission. (2016). European Neighbourhood Policy – European Neighbourhood Policy And Enlargement Negotiations – European Commission. Retrieved June 21, 2018, from https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/neighbourhood/overview_en
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  • European Comission. (2016). Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). Retrieved June 22, 2018, from https://eeas.europa.eu/diplomatic-network/union-mediterranean-ufm/329/union-mediterranean-ufm_en


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