The formulation of EU’s foreign policy for the Southern Mediterranean neighbourhood is traditionally considered as a prerogative of Southern European countries. The seminar challenges this view of an intra-European functional divide and takes a fresh look at the EU’s foreign policy formulation for the Middle East and North Africa. Who takes the lead in the formulation of the EU’s Mediterranean policies and how unitary are the Member States’ views concerning the EU’s future impact on the region? How do historical identities on the one hand, and the processes of Europeanisation on the other, affect the formulation of common policies?
The seminar draws on the findings of a newly published book on the policies of eight Nordic and Central-European EU members vis-à-vis the MENA region (Timo Behr and Teija Tiilikainen (eds): Northern Europe and the Making of the EU’s Mediterranean and Middle East Policies. Normative Leaders or Passive Bystanders? Ashgate, 2015).
Opening words by Teija Tiilikainen
In her opening words to the seminar Teija Tiilikainen, the Director of FIIA, introduced the book which was being launched in the seminar: “Northern Europe and the Making of the EU’s Mediterranean and Middle East Policies”.
Introduction to the seminar by Wolfgang Mühlberger
In his introductory words on the seminar Wolfgang Mühlberger, a senior research fellow for FIIA, emphasised the topical nature of the book with regard to the recent migration disasters in the Mediterranean, the following extraordinary EU summit and the ongoing ENP review consultations. Current developments in the Mediterranean point to increasing threats of civil war and growing political repression. The central question then becomes – will the EU be able to form a coherent and unified policy with regard to these developments?
In his presentation Timo Behr, one of the editors and authors of the book, focused on three questions. First of all, why the book was written, what was learned during the process of writing the book and what is the connection of the book with EU’s foreign policy. The idea to write the book was inspired by the Arab spring of 2011, which challenged the current wisdom of EU’s policy towards the MENA region. The former division of labour in the EU foreign policy has traditionally been one in which northern member states take the lead on the relations with Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood, whereas southern EU member states have been active in the relations with EU’s southern neighbourhood. However, this setting with regard to the Mediterranean was challenged by the events of 2011.
Behr noted that the southern member states are connected with the region in both a positive and a negative sense. This is reflected by the way in which the current instability in the region affects these southern EU member states – especially Greece and Italy. Previously, southern member states have been active with regard to initiatives such as the Barcelona process, the Union of the Mediterranean and the Middle East Peace Process. Both the Arab spring and the Lisbon treaty have challenged this formula.
The book looks into two sets of questions. Firstly, on what basis do the northern EU member states formulate their policies towards the southern neighbourhood? Secondly, what are the implications of the northern countries’ approach for EU’s foreign policy?
These questions are looked at on the basis of eight case studies which include both large and small countries. The important point to note regarding the northern countries is that they lack hard strategic economic and political interests in the southern neighbourhood. They do not see this area as a risk or a threat and have mostly focused on soft interests such as cultural exchange.
There are also notable historical ties with the region. Behr mentioned the connections of Germany with regard to countries such as Iran and Turkey. Another example would be the Austrian legacy of the Habsburg era.
Northern European countries play differing roles in the region. Germany sees itself as a civilian power and Sweden as a peaceful player. Because of the lack of hard interest in the region the domestic politics of these countries affect the approach that these countries take towards the southern neighbourhood. This means that the approach towards the Middle East is debated along the left-right axis.
Behr noted three roles that the northern countries have played with regard to the region. They have been norm setters in term of human rights and education. They have been norm takers since military and hard security issues are not developed and they have been ‘favour exchangers’ which means that they are willing to play along but they expect something in return.
As to the question of the EU staying united with regard to its southern neighbourhood, the short answer would be that it has never been united. There was a chance in 2011 for a more unified policy but this chance was not taken.
In her remarks Teija Tiilikainen highlighted additional conclusions of the book. She focused on the similarities and differences of three Nordic countries – namely Finland, Sweden and Denmark. She stressed that these are very different countries with differing identities and interests.
The foreign policies of these countries have been affected by the internationalist debates of the cold war. This historical legacy can be seen as affecting their approach towards the southern neighbourhood. Finland sees itself first of all as a small country where adaptation and pragmatism are the foremost approaches. It is mainly involved in the region through the UN. Sweden on the other hand is an active player in the region with its policy of active neutrality and drive for change. Denmark is positioned between these two countries and shares some elements of both of them, with the transatlantic relationship playing an important role.
With regard to the impact of the domestic factors on the approach to the region the Danish policy has been the most effective whereas in Finland and Sweden these developments a more linked to key personalities. Sweden and Denmark have had broader agendas with regard to the region whereas Finland has mostly focused on peace keeping, peace processes and some economic relations.
Europeanisation can also be thought to have had an impact on the policies towards the Southern neighbourhood especially in Sweden and Finland. For Denmark the transatlantic framework remains the more important one.
The EEAS’s reaction to the Arab spring was very difficult since the service was being set up at the same time when it had to respond to the upheavals in the southern neighbourhood. With regard to the EEAS there have previously been issues in the cooperation between the EU and the member states. On the Commission’s side there was the readiness for more cooperative approach to foreign policy.
There was an acknowledgement after 2011 and during the democratisation process of a growing role of Islamic political actors. In the EEAS, diplomats from eastern and central Europe had a great deal of sympathy for the Arab spring since it resembled the 1989 events.
During the 2011 uprisings many of the shortcomings of the previous engagement with the southern neighbourhood became apparent. It appeared that the stability policies in the region were in fact contributing to instability when questions such as repression of human rights were overlooked.
Due to this insight several initiatives were already put forward and there was a genuine enthusiasm for a new approach. These included a free trade agreement and mobility partnerships. There was also an emphasis that the relations should go beyond the state-to-state level with a focus on civil society involvement. This would in turn help facilitate the development of institutions of democracy such as free press and a vibrant civil society.
This approach has nevertheless not been completely successful. Some prejudice remains in terms of the Arab exceptionalism argument. However it is clear that democracy can work also in this region.
With regard to the most recent developments and the disaster involving the migrants, the efforts to increase funding for Frontex have been steps to the right direction but not enough. There is a need for more consistency in the ENP and this requires a long term approach.
There is already an understanding that the EU is not the only player involved in the region. The Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and the United States are also active. However the EU has defined the southern neighbourhood in geographically limited terms and there is lack of unified policy formulation towards the Gulf region.
Some positive examples of developments in the region would include Tunisia where the democratisation process is going forward despite difficulties. There is now a new constitution, a reconciliation process has started and two elections have already taken place. The big challenge now is to take democracy forward towards deep democracy, which means that the difficulties related to the economic situation need to be tackled as well.
Morocco is another positive example. It has used all the opportunities of the EU-partnership including mobility and free trade agreement. However, the country’s progress has also been very slow. Jordan can be considered another potentially positive example but it has been less ambitious than Morocco and its position is more precarious due to being located next to Syria. This has also contributed to a massive refugee problem in the country.
The negative examples in the region include the current breaking down of Libya and the situation in Syria with over 200,000 victims. The Syrian conflict is also spreading into Iraq and the rest of the region and it has also given rise to Daesh (ISIS).
For the lessons learned it is crucial that the EU acknowledges that it is not the only player in the region and acts accordingly. For example with regard to Syria the involvement of Russia and Iran are crucial.
In her comments on the previous speakers Professor Annette Jünemann underlined the input of the Nordic countries with regard to EU’s southern neighbourhood. She mentioned that for example the Euro-Mediterranean human rights network is based in Copenhagen. The problem in engaging the Mediterranean countries lies in the EU’s nature since it is neither an international organisation nor a state.
The main instruments for EU’s foreign policy are the ENP and CFSP. However the ENP, which is a long term policy instrument, is built on the assumption that states in the southern neighbourhood are functional. This is problematic since the states in the region are dysfunctional to various degrees.
This approach might work in Tunisia which is a functional state to a large extent. However, regarding Morocco, Jordan or Algeria the argument for evolutionary development has been made before and it should be criticised. The EU supported the authoritarian regimes in these countries. With regard to Libya and Syria, which were involved in the CFSP, there has not been strong action. This is mainly a structural problem.
More attention should also be paid to the use of the concept of regionalism. This is largely a question of perceptions. The region is perceived in term of religions. The EU, however, likes to think of itself as a rational actor. This is contrasted by the fact that EU actors were most reluctant to actually discuss with the Islamists after the Arab spring. Despite long term engagement with the region there has been a bias to view the MENA region in terms of Islamism and irrationality. What is now needed is an increased credibility for the EU. It should start acting according to the principles that it its putting forward. In Tunisia the EU is doing well although this is more due to the approach of the member states than the EU as a whole.
Moreover, the migrants coming across the Mediterranean are framed as a threat to the EU. The procedure of treating the migrants is very cynical and dominated by this perception. This has recently been challenged by a civil society approach to the question.
Closing Remarks by Wolfgang Mühlberger
Wolfgang Mühlberger offered some thoughts on political Islam. He claimed that it is both a domestic (in Arab countries) and international issue. From the EU’s viewpoint there has been a focus on the violent aspect of political Islam. This has been due to Algeria’s violent civil war in the 90’s and the election victory of Hamas in 2006. It should be noted that at the moment the violent aspect of political Islam is spreading across the MENA region and this has been the recent focus of the EU’s engagement, with negative implications for the social aspects of engagement.
Several remarks were made during the discussion. One concern was the importance of more realistic expectations and strategic patience regarding the ENP in the region. Another important point made was that there are several different strands of political Islam. There was also debate on the extent of reform in Morocco and the prospects of Turkey still acting as a model for the region even with its deteriorating