Today on twitter there are many reactions to the developments in Libya. From commentators, policy-makers, NATO and journalists. But not yet the EU. But should we be so critical?
The “Arab Spring” is a series of phenomena perhaps too large to define the reaction of the EU. Indeed, what is happening in Libya and Syria is not comparable to what happened in Egypt and Tunisia.
Tunisia and Egypt are in a phase of rebuilding and the work of the EU is both an effort of sorts, and telling. During the last months, the reaction of the EU is mainly based on an economic support with the help of the European Investment Bank (EIB). Indeed, The EIB will support EU policies in building the Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity in the Southern Mediterranean, with particular focus on financing investments aimed at job creation, private sector development including support for SMEs, infrastructure and climate action. EIB President Maystadt outlines that the economic situation plays in the democratic development of the Mediterranean (which is also in line with the 2011 World Bank Development Report on conflict, security and development) noting that: “What triggered the regime-changing events in the region? Widespread protests over mass unemployment, in particular among young people. We therefore need to help change the business climate and create hope for the jobless, many of whom now risk their lives in trying to reach the shore of Europe in search of work.”
In accord with Tunisia’s transitional government, the EIB will support employment, small and medium-sized enterprises and the development of microcredit, the modernisation of transport infrastructure and the expansion of energy generation and distribution. In Egypt, the EIB and authorities have identified priority projects in key areas such as help for businesses and the self-employed, infrastructure development, transport, energy and water.
Thus, one could argue that the EU is able to address post-conflict problems such as rebuilding through economic support. What is encouraging for the future of those countries, is the contribution of the EIB to the implementation of the « Deauville Partnership » within the framework of the new EU Neighbourhood Policy.
However, in Libya and Syria, the situation is not as ‘easy’ as throwing funds at it. The uprisings are still ongoing and far from the stages of reconstruction and reform due to violent repression. Indeed, the EU’s response to Syria is sanctions – a debateable topic in itself, as ‘targeting’ of sanctions is still a skill that seems to fail us and can negatively affect the population.
In Libya, the EU couldn’t take the lead, due to lack of Member State will, fear and restrictions from UNSC Resolution 1973, despite the fact that for the EU, Libya is a southern neighbourhood ‘priority’.
The EU did adopt strong language calling Gaddafi to leave and EU is in theory able to take the lead to assist the uprisings, being (in total of Member State capacity) the second largest military actor. But the EU doesn’t have the cohesion nor the authority, adding to the impossibility to take common political decision. But is this the role of the EU? – many are asking. Critique of the EU since the Lisbon Treaty, has stated that the EU is leaning less towards a body of coherent security response and more towards a return to bi-lateral action. Case in point being Libya, where French and British leadership assumed action. Yes, the EU responded with the potential for EUFOR Libya – but only as a humanitarian assistance mission under the sanction of the UN (which never came) and much to the opposition of the humanitarian community.
For the EU, the Arab Spring came when EU debate over the region had settled down to a policy of promoting stability and of engagement with the dictators of the region. Hence it was caught off-guard and in a quandary with the uprisings. For the EU, the relationship with Syria, since 1978, has been one of “economic, technical and financial cooperation and of trade.” Even though Syria is a signatory to the Barcelona Declaration and a member of the ‘Union for the Mediterranean’, unlike other ENP states, Syria does not yet benefit due to pending entry into force of the Association Agreement. Although the EU outlines in its Country Strategy Paper support for administrative reform and strengthening civil society (through UNDP), it tends to back away politically when things come to a head, as has happened with the uprising.
Thus so far, the action of the EU’s Foreign Policy on the uprisings is only sanctions and strong statements. One example: Catherine Ashton last week, “ the Syrian leadership is unwilling to implement the reforms it has promised in response to the legitimate requests of the Syrian people. I condemned in the strongest terms the latest events in my statement yesterday.”
If the sanctions are not enough, which is probably and unfortunately possible because Assad’s regime knows that a military intervention will not happen, the solution could come from a regional actor as Turkey, which could reinforce the inability of the EU to enact response to unrest in its direct neighbourhood.
Today, Turkey, a key regional power and former ally of Assad’s, has hardened its stance in recent days. Turkey’s Prime Minister, for the first time compared events in Syria with those in Libya, suggesting that the government might back calls for Assad’s departure.
The EU’s struggle is being tested exactly at the right moment as it is trying to orientate itself and build a coherent set of policies and reactions under CFSP (in theory, this would be linking its security and development policies, and perhaps even those of trade). As any entity in a process of maturing from its teenage years, this will be a make or break time for the EU – and its Member States – as either moving forward as an international security actor, or remaining as the economic hand-out body.