Which future for North Africa and the Middle East ?

, by Paolo V. Tonini

Which future for North Africa and the Middle East ?
Catherine Ashton Credit © European Union, 2011

When considering the current state of affairs of the southern Mediterranean countries and the so called middle-east, one cannot but acknowledge a deeply rooted state of political and economic crisis along with an unexpectedly dramatic social unrest. While this article is being written, thousands of people are still suffering and dying under brutal authoritarian repression, ravaging civil wars, omitted political refugeehood, humanitarian bombing, famine and poverty.

This article does not dare to return a verdict on some alleged western responsibilities. Rather, it acknowledges the existence of a broad issue, a demand for wealth and liberty from populations oppressed by their governments (and deceived by the rest of the world) intertwined with the appallingly feebleness of the EU Member States (hereinafter MS’s).

Who is going to answer that demand will retain for decades economic, political, social and cultural influence on that strategic region. Therefore, the inner purpose is to briefly unveil present and future perspectives for Europe to take the lead in the region, answering that question. Moreover, highlighting the current EU-driven institutional approach will help to disclose the famous R. Dworkin’s distinction between concept and conception [1], paramount in addressing whatever EU related issue.

In a straightforward article wrote in 2008 actual Spinelli Group member and former Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer tried to explore the deep reasons of the Middle-eastern countries’ wavering crisis status, while giving some predictions on their future developments [2]. The most basic assumption was the link (a must-be ’intrinsic correlation’, he wrote) between the lack of developmental dynamism of most Middle Eastern societies and the instability of the region. However, in a few years the static nature of the those societies would have been challenged by a number of global ’megatrends’. Namely globalization, global climate change and rapid population growth bringing high food, energy and water demands. The last months experience is giving right to this deduction. In particular, “the inherent contradiction between a governance structure incapable of change and economic modernization, between cultural and religious conservatism and social and normative transformation will therefore increase and bring about new, additional frictions if positive answers to these fundamental changes cannot be found” [3].

Further analyzing this last point, is it possible to assume that very few has been done by the European Union, and the ’West’ in general, to address, if not solve, this broad problem. At the dawn of the third millennium, the Occident realized to have mistakenly bet on security and stability over democracy and accountability in North Africa and the Middle East [4] By sustaining authoritarian regimes involving poverty, frustration and resentment among people, they indirectly fed Islamic extremism and political unrest. We have learnt that neocons policies, trying to solve the problem imposing a forced one-size-fits-all democratization process from the top to the bottom are not likely to work without bombs, terrorism and civil wars.

It has been argued that democracy cannot be exported. Rather, it can be imported, fitting the local cultural specificities. In this respect, Lady Ashton affirmed that the EU has to be careful not to be accused of political imperialism, avoiding being the new instrument for the colonial legacy of several Member States [5] This debate also entails a bunch of intertwined problems such as the suitability of the so-called ‘legal transplants’ [6], the management of migratory flows, terror-prevention, military cooperation and raw materials exploitation.

In the past decades there have been a number of projects, initiatives, partnerships in which the EU MS’s tried to establish stable relationships with the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Before the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), Europe launched the Global Mediterranean Policy (1972), the Renewed Mediterranean (1990), the Barcelona or Euro-Mediterranean Process (EMP, 1995) and then the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP, 2004). Despite the number of attempts, concrete results are still lacking. “The succession of policies reflects a persistently short-term approach to the region, in which the EU has sought to maximise its exports rather than invest in a long-term partnership” consultant and professor at the Catholic University of Louvain Bichara Khader said [7] In fact, the main concern remained a short-sighted economic one. The utmost goal was to assure the incoming of oil, gas and other raw materials, while granting European security keeping immigration under control. In other words, the West tried to maintain the status quo, screwing up its eyes to dictators, tyrants and autocrats.

Notwithstanding the short-sight of several MS’s governments, Europe is reaching a turner point, and the Libyan war is only the final alarm bell of a whole north-African and middle-eastern precarious EU position. In this respect, for more than 50 years, EU MS’s slept comfortably under the American security system woollen blanket. Even under the Soviet menace, they refused to sign the European Defence Community (ECD). Debating on this, Jean Quatremer argued that “L’affaire libyenne est d’une rare cruauté : elle révèle non seulement l’extrême faiblesse des forces armées françaises, mais aussi l’incapacité des Européens à agir seuls, même sur le plan politique.”. In other words, the European Union is seriously divided, not only on foreign affairs matters [8]

Inquiring into further details, we spoke with Lucia Serena Rossi, Jean Monnet professor of European Law at the Bologna University and Director of the interdepartmental research centre on European Union law (CIRDCE) [9]Answering the question whether the EU could take the lead and start developing the so called ‘sustainable stability’ [10], ( i.e., stability achieved through change, rather than immobility, towards sustainable political, social and economic developments) with the current instruments (ENP, EMP and UfM) she replied: "I am not optimist at the moment, but I don’t think that the point is to reform the instruments you have mentioned. It would be necessary to amend the Treaty of EU in order to reduce the unanimity vote in Common Foreign Security and Defence Policies. But first of all what should be modified is the political attitude of national politicians and Heads of Governments of both the sides of Mediterranean sea. Conditionality clauses imposing the respect of human rights have been introduced in many cooperation agreements but with no result and with weak reaction by the EU institutions. Having really democratic governments in that region could probably also help.”

Noteworthy, in less than one month Professor Rossi will be introducing a conference on the situation in Libya [11] hosted by the Bologna University in a joint-partnership with the local branch of the Union of European Federalists [12] (UEF – Italy). Much to many analysts’ dismay, despite the UN [13] and NATO interventions, a dramatic civil war is still going on. Debating on the suitability of the Joschka Fischer’ proposal, that is to suggest a quasi-European integration model in the region, she argued that a Marshall Plan and a proposal of a new African Organisation with a strong economic support is still a good idea. However, until wars are not ceased (with our help) it seems to her infeasible, also highlighting that Europeans are not alone anymore. In fact China developed in the last years strong interests in Africa.

The last point was a piece of advocacy on the inner positive nature of the western democratic efforts in the area. In fact, some analysts are giving argument for the contrary pointing out that if we allow a deeper democratization of North African and Middle Eastern countries, Islamists inroads through democratic processes would not be avoided. Due to increased democratic accountability of governments, those countries positions towards Israel and Iran could undergo a change.

“These analysis are misleading. If they mean that democracy is a risk, I think that it is surely worthy of support. We are not in the position to anticipate whether such democracies will be strong enough to resist to a religious extremism which could in the future, by means of democratic election, destroy the same democracy as it was in Iran. As far as Israel I think that only a change in their attitude towards their own “colonies” could modify the hostility of all –democratic or not- Arab world.”

One thing is clear, in the end. We need a concrete European governance for social, economic and external relations able to overcome the present crisis. And as long as this step will not be take the European future, that is our future, will be at stake.


[1Dworkin, R. Law’s Empire (Harvard University Press 1988)

[2Fischer, J. , Wanted: An Arab Jean Monnet, 2008, English translation available at http://www.projectsyndicate. org/commentary/fischer31/English


[4Tocci, N. , Cassarino, J.P. , Rethinking the EU’s Mediterranean Policies post-1/11, IAI Working Papers 1106, March 2011.

[5Ashton, C. “A world built on cooperation sovereignty, democracy and stability” speech no. 11/126, 25/02/2011.

[6For Italian readers see more in De Franchis, F. “Law Dictionary”, Giuffré ed. , Milan, 1984, p. 944

[7Europe: In need of a lifeline, By Joshua Chaffin in Brussels, Victor Mallet in Madrid and Peggy Hollinger in Paris the Financial Times, April 19 2011.

[8Quatremer, J. , Quelle défense pour l’Europe et pour la France, Coulisses de Bruxelles, UE, lundi 18 avril 2011 available at http://bruxelles.blogs.liberation.fr/coulisses/.

[9For English and Italian reders further details available on line at http://www.cirdce.unibo.it/.

[10See Ashton, C. “A world built on cooperation sovereignty, democracy and stability” speech no. 11/126, 25/02/2011 analysed in Tocci, N. , Cassarino, J.P. , Rethinking the EU’s Mediterranean Policies post-1/11, IAI Working Papers 1106, March 2011, p. 9

[13Security Council Resolutions 1970 (2011) of 26 February 2011 and 1973 (2011) approving ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians

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