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Neighbourhood Watch: Why the EU’s assistance policy in the MENA region deserves credit

Soon after the mass upris­ings across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) broke out, West­ern com­ment­at­ors lauded the situ­ation as the first steps towards the tri­umph of demo­cracy. Sup­por­ted by European and US rhet­oric about the right to self-determination, the ‘Arab Spring’ was sup­posed to sweep through the region, top­pling author­it­arian rulers and estab­lish­ing fair and account­able gov­ern­ments in their place. Except that hasn’t quite happened – just ask a Shia Bahraini, or a sec­u­lar Egyp­tian. Or an Algerian. Or a Syrian.

Where has Europe been in all this? The tur­moil on the continent’s door­step – let’s not for­get almost all the Arab and Sahel coun­tries are European Neigh­bour­hood ‘Part­ners’ – could hardly have come at a worse time for EU lead­ers, whose own prob­lems have unsur­pris­ingly stolen the lime­light. This said, the EU has not ignored the events and has tried to provide assist­ance. Des­pite lazy press com­par­is­ons to 1989, sim­il­ar­it­ies between then and now are few and far between, and so Europe can give little help based on its own exper­i­ences; it has there­fore worked hard to prof­fer encour­age­ment, expert­ise and money.

What has the EU done so far?

On the 8th Feb­ru­ary, just over two years since the start of the upris­ings, the EU released its report on the ‘state-of-play’ in the region, a 10-page doc­u­ment describ­ing sup­port given to each coun­try. Stress­ing the “deep con­nec­tion with polit­ics” that eco­nomic mat­ters have on the very first page cer­tainly sets the tone. But while cyn­ics and euro­scep­tics cry that the EU doesn’t want to get prop­erly involved and instead just throws money at the region, the EU’s approach is astute. It is cru­cial to bear in mind that eco­nomic griev­ances were what star­ted the protests – daily bread, rather than day-to-day liber­ties, was the chief con­cern and it was when pop­u­lar dis­sent snow­balled that oppos­i­tion and pro-democracy groups seized the oppor­tun­ity. The EU is there­fore abso­lutely right to pur­sue eco­nomic goals, the suc­cess of which will be favour­able to polit­ical development.

Hun­dreds of mil­lions of euros in grants will be made avail­able to MENA coun­tries as part of the SPRING pro­gram, which rewards demo­cratic pro­gress with cash. Whether this will work is not cer­tain – a Com­mis­sion review of the ENP in 2010 made clear that while the EU is good at pro­mot­ing sec­toral reform, pro­mot­ing demo­cratic reform has proved a much harder task. There­fore, the EU should not be afraid to shout about its eco­nomic assist­ance pro­grammes, which sound far more use­ful in a world where talk of mil­lions and bil­lions no longer causes awe to the aver­age citizen.

The newly-launched European Neigh­bour­hood Pro­gramme for Agri­cul­ture and Rural Devel­op­ment (ENPARD) is a stel­lar example of such a scheme. Aimed at mod­ern­ising and expand­ing agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion through tailored dia­logues, there is much prom­ise for effi­ciency gains in the sec­tor that is so uni­formly import­ant across the region. A sim­ilar scheme proved to be bene­fi­cial dur­ing the acces­sion of mem­ber states in East­ern Europe. As well as hav­ing the poten­tial to pro­mote bottom-up eco­nomic growth through increased incomes for farm­ers, the pro­gramme could also alle­vi­ate sub­sist­ence con­cerns. What is more, higher agri­cul­tural com­pet­i­tion will hardly be well-received by European farms so it can be seen as some­what of a self­less move by the EU. Nego­ti­ations over a free-trade area are set to com­mence this year, which may see the reduc­tion of bar­ri­ers to agri­cul­tural trade among the terms.

Chal­lenges and accomplishments

The EU has come under fire from pressure-groups, char­it­ies and even Home Affairs com­mis­sioner Cecilia Malmström for its hand­ling of the migra­tion issue in the wake of civil unrest across the Arab world, though this is unwar­ran­ted. Unpre­ced­en­ted num­bers of asylum seekers fled north, includ­ing 1 mil­lion escap­ing the blood­shed in Syria; 185,000 of these are camped on the EU’s door­step in Turkey.

The issue here is far from one of simple EU policy. The inter­gov­ern­mental nature of the Union in the area of migra­tion means that sens­it­ive migra­tion motions are extremely dif­fi­cult, if not impossible, to pass. After Italy gave tem­por­ary res­id­ence visas to migrants in April 2011 France reacted with fury, tem­por­ar­ily stop­ping all trains cross­ing the Franco-Italian bor­der. Whether or not this was a dir­ect viol­a­tion of the Schen­gen agree­ment is open to ques­tion (rein­stat­ing bor­der con­trols is only pos­sible in the case of a “ser­i­ous threat to pub­lic secur­ity”) but the epis­ode serves to high­light the severe ten­sions felt by mem­ber states. In a cli­mate of grow­ing euro­scep­ti­cism it would have been a PR dis­aster for the EU to call for an influx of unskilled migrants on grounds of com­pas­sion. Besides, migrants enter­ing the EU and send­ing money to their rel­at­ives back home would not be a long-term solu­tion to the eco­nomic prob­lems in the MENA region. At best, it would slow down pro­gress, at worst, cause a ‘brain drain’ of highly-educated, highly-skilled work­ers flock­ing to Europe. Far more use­ful are pro­grams which help cul­tiv­ate the region’s human resources. An example is Erasmus Mundus, the EU’s stu­dent exchange pro­gram with third coun­tries, to which fund­ing has recently been increased.

Finally, the ‘State of Play’ report makes sev­eral ref­er­ences to stim­u­la­tion of the private sec­tor, a shrewd move and one that will address one of the MENA region’s most dam­aging short­com­ings. In many coun­tries private devel­op­ment is hampered by large state power in busi­ness, a lack of integ­ra­tion in global mar­kets and red tape act­ing as a bar­rier to entry for new firms. The European Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment (EBRD), which is largely fin­anced by the EU and the European Invest­ment Bank, will play a key role in rem­edy­ing this. Of course, it will be hard to erad­ic­ate the cronyism that is com­mon­place, but “cau­tious privat­isa­tion” (the words of EBRD pres­id­ent Thomas Mirow) and trade pro­mo­tion, in con­junc­tion with the vari­ety of other policies out­lined pre­vi­ously, should allow MENA eco­nom­ies to finally get off the ground and give coun­tries more fer­tile ground for demo­cratic growth.

-John Allwood

Dis­claimer: This art­icle was ori­gin­ally pub­lished as Neighbourhood Watch: Why the EU’s assistance policy in the MENA region deserves credit on April 14, 2013 in The European Student Think Tank, a PB cooper­a­tion partner


Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, Creative Commons, Flickr


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