Europe Starts to Get Serious About its Neighbors
BUCHAREST -- Nearly four months after a young Tunisian fruit seller burned himself alive out of despair over the corruption of his country and sparked a popular revolt against autocracy that swept the region, thunderstruck leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are finding their voice again. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a major speech that compared the uprisings with America's civil rights movement. This week, it was Europe's turn to answer the call from Northern Africa and the Middle East. By European standards of deliberation, the European Union's response was atypically timely.
On Wednesday, Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs chief, and Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, released a joint policy paper called, in characteristically dry EU-speak, “A New Response to a Changing Neighborhood.” Technically, this document is the result of a routine review of the EU's existing neighborhood policy, and was scheduled long before the Arab upheavals. But as events unfolded, it became clear that Europe's response could no longer be routine. So the advance word was that this would be a bold reaction to the dramatic changes in what remains a very dynamic neighborhood.
But the paper published on Tuesday falls somewhat short of a genuinely bold vision. It does not go so far as to sketch out a desired democratic end state for the nations of the region. That kind of clarity might have made relations with some countries easier. Still, by European standards, it's a courageous document. Most importantly, it rectifies the chief flaw of the earlier policy by introducing genuine conditionality; it seeks to encourage democratic reforms by offering the carrot of economic support--and threatening to withdraw it in case of backsliding. This in itself is a remarkable affirmation of European principles and values. Civic and opposition party leaders had asked for it in vain for years, and watched in frustration as the EU gave funds to regimes that paid no more than lip service to reform, if that.
Yet reformers and activists in the region still fear that the new policy will share the fate of so many other well-intentioned documents: a slow death by uncoordinated and incoherent implementation. And will the EU, they wonder, manage to preserve the courage of its convictions when it comes to countries like Ukraine and Azerbaijan, which are courted by individual member states for geostrategic and economic reasons?
Here are four modest proposals that could help make a success of Europe's new neighborhood policy:
First, conditionality needs to be made to work. It has to be translated into clear and objective indicators or benchmarks of economic, social, and political transformation that the EU's regional partners cannot fudge (but that also won't allow the EU to move the goalposts) One key indicator--and condition for any further steps in relations with the EU--ought to be a country's willingness to hold free and fair elections.
Second, good ideas need good processes. The new policy provides several new mechanisms--a European Endowment for Democracy, a Civil Society Facility, Migration Partnerships--to reinforce civil societies in the region, in recognition of the fact that they are key drivers of reform and were ignored by earlier policies. But these now need to be fleshed out and, even more importantly, backed with real political support. At the same time, existing but tired mechanisms like the Union for the Mediterranean and the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum need to be shaken up to make them work in the new democratic dispensation.
Third, in a world that is strapped for funds, the new and improved neighborhood policy will have to figure out some more flexible financing mechanisms. For example, the European Commission could consider public-private partnerships to fund different aspects of the policy. These partnerships would have the double benefit of bringing money where it is needed, and of ensuring coordination between various actors active in the same sector, country, or region.
Fourth, the policy remains weak on regional cooperation. In a region scarred by old conflicts, regional cooperation can build bridges where bilateral relations cannot. Cooperation across regional boundaries between civil society organizations, local governments, media, and trade unions can help address issues that national governments shy away from, whether from a lack of resources or political will. If regional cooperation is to be given its full importance, then the most powerful neighbor of Europe, Turkey, must be included.
All in all, the European Union's new neighborhood policy looks better than many observers had feared. It could even be a sign that Europe is finally getting serious about its neighbors. It would be a very important achievement for the Polish Presidency of the EU (which begins on June 1) if it made sure that enough political push is provided to make the policy work.
The Arab Spring has shamed many in Europe into reconsidering their previous support for stability over dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. So perhaps there is indeed scope for bold action. Still, there will be many tests of Europe's resolve--the next fraudulent election, the next TV station to be shut down, or the next party to be banned. The next test may come far sooner than we would like.
Alina Inayeh directs the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation and the German Marshall Fund's Bucharest Office.
Photo by Jasab
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.