EU slammed for vague stand on countries of Arab Spring

By Catherine Field

A year has passed since the Arab Spring shook North Africa and the Middle East, but Europe remains a bystander to events, focused more on ensuring the success of its own revolution more than 20 years ago, say critics.

In the last two months, the European Union (EU) has slapped diplomatic sanctions on Belarus, signalled to Serbia that it can become the 28th nation of its club and promised Sarajevo it would rebuild a national library whose destruction was a symbol of the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

Yet this decisiveness contrasts with caution in helping Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where post-revolutionary governments are struggling with the transition to democracy. They face a rising tide of popular frustration that Islamist groups are only too keen to exploit.

"After 1989, Europe looked eastwards for more than 20 years, with some success. Now Europe has to look south," says British MP Dennis MacShane, a former Minister for European Affairs.

He complains that Europe's vision is blinkered by entrenched interests, especially the agricultural lobby.

The EU's vehicle of support is a "neighbourhood policy" linking it with Algeria, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia.

Launched in 2004 to promote trade and economic initiatives with its neighbours, the policy covers energy, education, transport, research and promotion of civil society.

But critics say the policy is plodding, bureaucratic and unambitious.

"In the early days of the Arab Spring, there were many calls from member states for 'Marshall Plans' for North Africa and the Middle East and for breaking down trade protectionism, coupled with a race to get visibility in the region and at home through official visits to the uprising countries," says Rosa Balfour of the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels.

"None of these proposals have materialised. No initiative has been presented by the member states, including those which have traditionally pushed for grand plans to engage the two shores of the Mediterranean."

Wrote Geoff Paul, a Middle East specialist with the European Institute, a European-American think-tank: "The EU hasn't achieved its aim of firmly anchoring its neighbours to Europe. For example, the visa policy currently in force for citizens of EU southern neighbours is at odds with the neighbourhood policy's objectives of greater co-operation and rapprochement.

"Southern and eastern Mediterranean countries find this humiliating when the EU says it has granted them a privileged partnership. The EU has also been very reluctant to open its markets to trading partners that have a competitive advantage, such as in agriculture."

The EU disbursed some €1.7 billion to the southern Mediterranean between 2007 and 2010. After the Arab Spring erupted, an additional €160 million was allocated for Egypt and Tunisia between 2011 and 2012 under the neighbourhood policy, and €350 million disbursed under a new programme called Spring (Support for partnership, reform and inclusive growth).

The Commission also increased by €10 million the education and teaching grants for students in North Africa and the Middle East, increasing the number of scholarships each year from 525 to 1084.

But this contrasts with the hundreds of billions of dollars that flowed in aid and trade concessions to the former Soviet economies of eastern and central Europe. Roads and bridges were built, railways, schools and hospitals were renovated, town centres rejuvenated and young people drawn into training programmes. Within a few years, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuanian, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia gained "candidate" status for EU members, receiving full membership in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania joined three years later.

Today, though, money is tight. Europe cannot throw open the financial floodgates. Peter Stano, spokesperson for Commissioner Stefan Fuele, in charge of the neighbourhood policy, defended the strategy, saying it was based on the same principle that guided the successful consolidation of eastern Europe.

"[It] is founded on a 'more for more' principle, mutual accountability and stronger partnership with societies," he said in an email response to the Herald. "The more partners engage in democratic reforms, the more the EU will support the ongoing transformations."

Diplomats say that at a meeting in February, France lobbied hard for debt forgiveness in exchange for legal and institutional changes, an approach influenced by the "quid pro quo" of the bailout for Greece. But the chances of this being incorporated into an assessment of the neighbourhood policy, due to be issued next month, are slim. Radical changes to the programme are unlikely.

"I would like to see factories relocating to the south Mediterranean nations rather than Asia, and the EU dropping its trade protectionism against the region's agricultural exports," says MacShane. "But the agro-protectionist force in France, Spain and Italy will stop any market opening."

- NZ Herald

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