Rethinking the EU's Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Policy

EU Med Policy
By Massimiliano Fiore

The revolts sweeping through the Mediterranean and the Middle East have exposed the tremendous shortcomings of EU policy towards the region. That policy mistakenly equated short-term stability with deeper and long-term sustainability. In a number of recent speeches, European commissioners have admitted they were wrong to prioritise short-term interests, centred on economic cooperation, security and migration management. 

“This was not even Realpolitik. It was, at best, short-termism and the kind of short-termism that makes the long-term ever more difficult to build”, declared Stefan Fule - European Commissioner for Enlargement and the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The revolts in the Arab world have highlighted the need for radical rethinking of EU policy towards the region. They have also highlighted the need for a greater degree of heterogeneity and differentiation. Whereas some countries have managed to sustain the status quo (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the Emirates), others have undertaken or pledged political reform (Morocco, Jordan and Oman). Some are moving towards democracy (Tunisia and Egypt): elsewhere there are power vacuums (Yemen), risks of falling into authoritarian adjustments (Algeria), entrapment in violence (Libya and Syria) or repression (Bahrain). This is why, in responding to the events in the Arab world, the EU decided earlier this year to rethink and strengthen the bilateral dimension of its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern policy, the European Neighbourhood Policy. This article aims at exploring what such a rethink might entail for the EU.

The Commission proposed “A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity” in March, supplemented by “A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood” in May. The three main elements of the new EU approach towards the region are democratic transformation and institution-building; a stronger partnership with the people; and sustainable and inclusive growth and economic development. This new approach aims to:


  1. Adopt a more flexible and differentiated approach, allowing each partner country to develop its links with the EU according to its own aspirations and needs;
  2. Move towards an incentive-based approach. European support will be conditional on real progress in building and/or consolidating deep and sustainable democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law;
  3. Envisage the (limited) liberalization of the free movement of persons and pursue the process of visa facilitation into the EU;
  4. Develop a strategy to engage more deeply with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civil societies;
  5. Revamp the overall benefits on offer, not only in terms of greater assistance to support economic and social development, but also in terms of better access to European markets, including for agricultural and fisheries products;
  6. Enhance EU involvement in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.


These responses make good sense in the short-term, but more is needed to achieve sustainable democracy and economic growth. More conditionality, more engagement with civil society, more benefits on offer, and more liberalization in the domains of trade and movement of persons are certainly good starting points, but they are not enough. Far more should be done in the short and long-term towards the region, particularly in trade and mobility, to respond to the historic events across the Mediterranean. The following steps should be considered and adopted:


  1. The EU should liberalise its agricultural and fisheries markets, which are vital for the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. The EU is currently negotiating liberalization measures on agricultural and fisheries products with Tunisia and Morocco, and has already reached agricultural agreements with Israel. Yet, the EU can only induce its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern partners to scale down their high tariff barriers if it moves in this direction with all of them;
  2. The EU should develop a more ambitious approach in the field of migration, moving away from its highly security-focused logic of return and readmission and adopting incentives aimed at allowing third countries to “realize the potential development contribution of their nationals living abroad”. Professional mobility should be allowed at once;
  3. The EU should mobilize its development banks to help foster transformation;
  4. A final element of developing and implementing an effective EU policy towards the region will rely upon EU close cooperation with its member states, traditional allies (the US), regional actors (Turkey and the GCC) and global external actors (Russia and China).


What is ultimately needed is a vision similar, though not identical, to the one that inspired the EU after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Despite ambiguities and hesitations, by implementing aid programmes, opening trade talks and promising enlargement, the EU played a crucial role in reshaping the political, legal, socio-economic and mental structures in Central and Eastern Europe. By contributing to the stabilization and transformation of the former Soviet Union region, the EU strengthened the security situation of the entire continent. Today, precisely like the people of Central and Eastern Europe prior to them, the Arab people are calling for prosperity and democracy.

While it would be unthinkable to copy and paste the Central and Eastern European solution, the EU should respond to the events in the Arab world with a bolder vision of the long-term relationship between the two shores of the Mediterraneanand a firm commitment to support the transition of the region and full accession to the EU single market by 2030. On the EU side, this would entail the gradual elimination of all remaining barriers to the free circulation of goods, services, capital and labour. On the Mediterranean and Middle Easternside, this would entail the progressive implementation of all EU legislation linked to the single market.

The vision of a Euro-Med Economic Area will be a hard sell in a Europe that is affected by recession, low growth and high unemployment, but it is the job of the politicians to inspire and lead. As former French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France famously declared, “government is choosing. Europe must choose either to mobilise help for its neighbours and open up to them, or start recruiting coastguards and manning the patrol boats”. Now more than ever before, the EU must be faithful to its promises and demonstrate its commitment to full partnership with the region.


19 September 2011