Off the Radar: Europe’s Retreat from a Democratic Push in the Middle East

As the Middle East and North Africa region grows more unstable, Europe has turned inward, under-using its ability—and even understating the need—to project democratic values in the region. In a recent presentation at the Atlantic Council, Member of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake argued it is time to change that dynamic, and for Europe to show leadership. Schaake belongs to the Dutch Democratic Party, part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. A member of the Trade Committee and Committee for Foreign Affairs, Schaake placed herself among a few lonely voices in Brussels pressing the European Union to make democracy, human rights, and peaceful conflict resolution the heart of EU policies toward the Middle East.

A more democracy-oriented approach to Europe’s southern neighborhood would uphold the values that are the foundation of the EU’s identity, thus strengthening the EU as a global power, Schaake explained. It would also advance Europe’s security interests by addressing the repression, rights abuses, and social and economic exclusion that can feed violent extremist movements with global reach, destabilize nearby Arab countries, and drive thousands of migrants to risk their lives to reach the relative safety of the EU. But the payback for Europe of such a policy—a more stable, secure, prosperous region—could only emerge over the long run, given the complexity of the Middle East’s challenges. This complexity may explain why too many are still comfortable with continuing business as usual, as if the Arab uprisings never happened.

In the face of mounting security threats emanating from the region, and the pessimistic mood in Europe toward the Middle East in light of the failures of all the 2011 uprisings except Tunisia’s, the EU has little appetite (or resources) for the robust engagement required. These days, “the Middle East and North Africa is not on the EU’s radar in a serious way,” observed Schaake. The EU has focused on reviving Europe’s weak economy, managing the continent’s political divisions, and tightening internal security in the wake of the recent jihadist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen and other blowback from the Syrian conflict. Such efforts primarily involve domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies and trump foreign policy, which is far down the list for the EU at present. Some observers note that even the EU’s top international priority of countering Russian influence in Ukraine and elsewhere does not galvanize sufficient European action or unity.

The EU must strengthen its diplomatic and aid efforts to improve the economic, political, and social conditions in the region. These efforts should also underpin a long-term strategy to counter violent extremist movements with roots in the Middle East, Schaake explained. But unlike with Russia and Ukraine, where some influential member states press for EU attention, there is no real European champion for Middle East democracy. Beneath the rhetoric of democratic values, short-term security interests and a renewed, but misplaced, belief in authoritarian stability dominate EU policy toward the Middle East and North Africa.

Right after the 2011 Arab uprisings, Schaake recalled, the EU experienced a brief moment of optimism about the region, expressed contrition for its past complacency about authoritarian rule there, and promised to do better. The strategic shift to emerge from those heady days was the new “more for more” principle, which was intended to give more or less EU assistance based on whether or not Arab governments carried out reforms towards democracy and human rights. Schaake praised the concept, but stated that it was never implemented in a serious way. Clear reform benchmarks were never established and the EU offered only ten percent more or less aid money in response to reform performance–hardly enough to motivate Arab governments.

The EU is in the process of revising its Neighborhood Policy, but a more robust approach is unlikely. The mood in Brussels has reverted to the pre-2011 lack of interest in pushing for democratic change, doubts are high about the prospects for democratization in the region, and the EU once again seeks close ties with the region’s authoritarian leaders to pursue short-term security needs in counterterrorism and stemming illegal migration. Schaake noted that there is growing opposition within the European Parliament, which has been among the more vocal EU voices on democracy issues, to push on human rights. For example, the Parliament’s largest bloc, the Christian Democrats, opposed a recent resolution that condemned human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, addressing human rights in Egypt or the Gulf States is weighed against interests, and the latter often take precedent.

According to Schaake, this foreign policy malaise stems largely from a belief that the EU cannot influence events in the Middle East and therefore should not expend political capital trying to solve impossibly complex crises or promote democratic values. The malaise also reflects other factors that hinder the EU’s role as a promoter of democracy. These include:

  • Europe’s challenge in fighting Islamist extremism. Support for Islamist extremism within Europe has spread, Schaake noted, manifesting itself not only in homegrown jihadist plots, but also in public expressions of sympathy such as the July 2014 pro-ISIS demonstrations in the Netherlands. European countries sometimes are too hesitant about asserting fundamental democratic values in response to these troubling developments. Schaake asserted that clearheaded solutions to religious extremism must be based firmly on the principles of an open society, avoiding knee-jerk, possibly counterproductive reactions such as banning flags at protests or taking away the passports of Europeans traveling to Syria. She expressed concern that Europe has not mounted any large-scale effort to understand why jihadist recruitment has been effective inside European democracies in the first place.  
  • Antiestablishment sentiments and serious problems especially among economically disenfranchised young people, which create a fertile ground for those who seek to call into question whether the European system of liberal democracies—and the international liberal order led by the West more broadly—can still generate prosperity. The European Parliament is used by nationalist voices on the left and the right as an effective platform to voice antiestablishment rhetoric. Some parliamentarians on the far right and the far left increasingly sympathize with Vladimir Putin’s counter-narrative about the dangers of the Western-led global order. Such voices in turn call for a more inward-looking EU, arguing that European foreign policy should be limited to enforcing border controls.
  • The overall weakening of European unity with the economic downturn, the prospect of a British exit from the EU, Greece’s possible exit from the Eurozone, and Hungary’s worrisome authoritarian turn.
  • A weakened translatlantic relationship, with the ascendance of a new generation of Europeans less committed to close US-European ties. A transatlantic relationship built upon the ideas of the United States as the liberator of Europe and of shared sacrifice in the service of US and European democracy has diminished resonance with younger Europeans for whom World War II is not a living memory.
  • The diversification of European societies, which can be a source of strength, but also precipitates new challenges. According to Schaake, the trends of anti-Semitism and ethnic discrimination in Europe are at worrying levels. Meanwhile the domestic and foreign policy lines are blurred. Europe has not figured out solutions to either trend.
  • The EU’s traditionally strong soft-power capacity lacks the backup of hard power through effective defense capabilities. This deficit hinders the EU’s ability to back up any effort to respond to severe human rights abuses beyond its borders with the threat of force. For instance, key EU members, namely the United Kingdom and France, were not able to complete the 2011 bombing campaign against Libya—the stated goal of which was to protect Libyans from Muammar Qaddafi’s atrocities—without the United States providing specific operational capacities.  

Modesty about the ability to affect significant change in the Middle East from the outside is appropriate, acknowledged Schaake. But modesty must not lead to passivity. If it does nothing else, the European community should at least express much more clearly its disapproval of authoritarian behavior and repression in the region, rather than avoid confronting it. For example, the EU did not confront the Egyptian government as it should have in November 2012, when former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi issued a decree granting himself unchecked powers. European civil society and governments should also redouble efforts to engage with civic groups and youth. Traditional state-to-state policies are no longer sufficient in changing, youthful Arab societies.

Schaake lamentedthat Europe still has not learned the lesson, demonstrated so powerfully in the 2011 Arab uprisings, that authoritarian repression cannot provide lasting stability in the region or security for Europe. She expressed dismay that the shocking events of the past year in Europe—Russian expansionism in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the shooting down of a commercial airliner over Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists, and the jihadist attacks in Paris—have not sparked the needed wake-up call for a more effective, values-based foreign policy to respond to the challenges of autocracy, violent extremism, and illiberalism. Schaake worried that it may take even more disturbing events to shake the EU’s complacency. Thankfully, she remains committed to her continued push for a strong Europe in a changing world.

Amy Hawthorne is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Elissa Miller is a Program Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

This article was written as part of a series of Atlantic Council initiatives to foster new, strategic thinking on US-European cooperation in the Arab transition countries, generously funded in part by the EU Delegation to the United States.

Image: Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (C) gestures during a family photo with EU foreign ministers and counterparts from North African and Middle Eastern countries at a meeting in Barcelona, April 13, 2015 to discuss how to reform the EU's policy towards its southern neighbors. (Reuters)