There is something deeply and comprehensively flawed in the EU’s relations with its Mediterranean neighbourhood. After more than 50 years of European cooperation, agreements, declarations and plans with the southern Mediterranean and the Arab countries, only one new democratic state (Tunisia) has emerged. A benevolent observer would say this democratisation process was not initiated as a result of the EU’s resolute support for a population demanding freedom from an authoritarian regime. A blunter observer, however, would argue that Tunisians managed to topple their former autocrat despite the support he received from certain European quarters until the very last minute. So much for decades of European pro-democracy rhetoric.
The Mediterranean is one of the areas in which the EU has made the most effort and in which it has devoted a great deal of creativity and imagination to rethink cooperation frameworks. However, the EU has failed to meet each and every one of the objectives announced in the 1995 Barcelona Declaration. Twenty-five years later, the Mediterranean is today far from being “a common area of peace, stability and shared prosperity”. The “Euro-Mediterranean free trade area”, announced for 2010, has yet to be realized nor is expected to be anytime soon. The “strengthening of democracy and respect for human rights” belongs to the realm of fiction. The “Euro-Mediterranean partnership for greater understanding and closeness between peoples” leaves much to be desired. In short, the failure is undeniable, and the frustration generated is profound. Neither the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) nor the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) have changed those realities for the better.
So, what has prevented the EU from being more successful in transforming the Mediterranean? One of the main reasons behind the EU’s inconsistencies and the lack of coherence between its discourses and the outcome of its policies is to be found in a widespread and oversimplifying idea. For decades, the EU has been trapped in what it perceived as a “dilemma between values and interests”: if it wanted to be true to its values, it would have to press for genuine democratic reform, but if it tried to defend its immediate interests, it would have to maintain friendly relations with autocracies.
The problem with the perceived “dilemma between values and interests” lies in the definition of interests. Values seem easier to identify and to be placed in a temporal framework. However, how interests are defined depends on factors such as: 1) who defines those interests, 2) the timeframe to evaluate whether they have been successfully achieved or not, and 3) who assesses the costs and benefits of putting those interests before values. For many years now, the problem with the definition of interests has generated a false dichotomy between security and democratisation in Europe’s Mediterranean neighbourhood. Needless to say, non-democratic regimes are comfortable with that dichotomy and actively promote it.
Short-term interests are arguably easier to identify than longer-term ones. This “short-termism” has guided European policies and actions for years, while regional conditions kept deteriorating. For the past decade, the world has witnessed the emergence of alarming phenomena occurring in the Arab region. These include civil wars, regional warfare, proxy wars, arms races, migration crises, waves of refugees, the use of weapons of mass destruction, the rise of sectarianism and religious extremism, the emergence of totalitarian projects such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the strengthening of repressive authoritarianism and the deterioration of relations between states and societies in several countries. The number of failed or failing states in the southern and eastern Mediterranean has been on the rise, and there is no reason to believe that this trend will be reversed in the near future.
When defining its interests, the EU has failed to measure the secondary effects of cosying up to regimes whose nature goes against good governance and the rule of law. By supporting short-term stability at any cost, the EU has de facto geared towards preserving the status quo through backing “illiberal autocracies”. Those regimes cultivate crony capitalism, rely on corruption and nepotism, have a very unequal distribution of power and wealth and, ultimately, generate frustration and resentment among their populations. It is time for the EU to assess if those secondary effects compromise the interests, wellbeing and security of European states and societies in the longer term.
Because of its addiction to false dilemmas and misleading dichotomies (“security vs democratisation”, “cooperation with governments vs engagement with societies”), the EU has missed many opportunities and made itself less relevant as a driver of positive transformation in its immediate neighbourhood to the south. It is clear that neither the EU nor its member states can democratise those countries by themselves; however, they have enough leverage to play a crucial role in advancing good governance and democracy, which they are not using.
Some of the consequences of the EU’s addiction to false dilemmas is that they take over its political will to uphold its values, they make it engage in practices that have adverse long-term effects and they prevent it from developing a clear vision on how to protect its future interests.
In the new international context marked by a global emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic can be an aggravating factor for problems and a multiplier in conflicts around the Mediterranean. Its southern and eastern shores were already under great pressure from weak social protection systems and high youth unemployment, even before they were hit by the coronavirus. It is quite likely that the economic and security implications of the pandemic can lead to further destabilisation in such a volatile region. This should be the moment of clarity for the EU to quitits addiction to false dilemmas and to start a long-awaited course correction in its relations with the Mediterranean. The risk of not doing so is that it may have to deal soon with a more fractured, conflictive and unstable neighbourhood.
Whether it is true or not that Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, it does not take a genius to realise that constantly acting based on false dilemmas and misleading dichotomies ends up producing undesired and self-defeating outcomes.