ANALYSIS: The EU's Institutional and Policy Shortcomings in the MENA Region

Photo: Adam Brown/Crown Copyright



Author: Stefan Pfalzer 


The EU takes pride in being firmly based on its ideals of democracy, personal freedoms, economic cooperation, prosperity and peace. Current conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region call for EU action due to the fact that instability and wars directly affect the EU as millions of people have been driven away from their homes, often out of their countries, and many have set out for Europe's shores in search of secure living conditions. Moreover, the EU is interested in keeping the region stable in order to expand its economic sphere of influence and ensure access to natural resources. Finally, the EU has an obligation to act because of its role as a peace project and promoter of the above-mentioned ideals. However, bridging these vital interests amid an immensely complex institutional structure as well as diverging positions of its Member States, has proven to be extraordinarily difficult for the EU and has raised questions about the efficiency and importance of the EU as a global actor. The following pages will examine the factors which continue to obstruct decisive and successful EU policies in the MENA region as well as look at the cases of Libya and Syria, in order to draw conclusion about the EU's foreign policy instruments.



Institutional foundations of EU foreign policy in the MENA region


In order to understand the EU's policies in the MENA region, its deficiencies and achievements, one has to observe the basic workings of EU institutions and policy frameworks. Firstly, there is no common EU policy for the neighbouring MENA region, because the domains of security and defence are prerogatives of the Member States and because the categorisation of the MENA region encompasses states, which differ greatly in their interests and problems and therefore, cannot be subjected to a uniform approach (Henökl and Stemberger, 2016, p.235).


A plethora of different institutions is both a source of potential, e.g. with regard to funding and financing of humanitarian aid, but also a fact which makes the foreign policy process of the EU rather lengthy and inefficient due to the existence of parallel structures. The decision-making and coordination of foreign policy is essentially divided between the European External Action Service (EEAS), the Member States by means of their Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the Council of the EU, the Political and Security Committee, the Military Committee as well as the European Commission, as the signatory of strategic partnerships and joint action plans, and the European Parliament as a ratifier during various process levels (Henökl and Stemberger, 2016, p.236).


When it comes to the allocation of humanitarian and development aid, the EU can draw back on multiple sources of funding under the framework of the European Neighborhood Instrument, the Development Cooperation Instrument and the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. Excluded from the EU budget, but still financed by the Member States, the Commission manages the European Development Fund. To complete the picture, moreover there is the Instrument contributing to Peace and Stability as well as the recently introduced external trust funds, (e.g. the Madad Trust Fund for Syria, which was set up in 2014 and also includes non-EU donors such as Turkey) (Henökl and Stemberger, 2016, pp. 237-240).


This cornucopia of institutions and financial sources has multiple implications on EU foreign policy. Firstly, one may doubt whether this current institutional architecture of parallel institutions in different pillars is conducive to an efficient decision-making process. However, the procedural framework of the EU foresees a system of checks and balances. Critics attribute a bureaucratic expansionism to the EU and identify that its administrative institutions have a bias to enlarge their responsibility, continuously commence initiatives and assume new roles and competences (Henökl and Stemberger, 2016, p.248). Secondly, the multiple funding frameworks enable the EU to mobilise considerable amounts of financial aid within short periods, if necessary. For example, the European Commission Office for Humanitarian Aid can immediately mobilise €30 million for relief action (Henökl and Stemberger, 2016, p.248). The above-mentioned Madad Trust Fund for Syria has recently reached its goal of raising one billion euros to provide for housing, health and education facilities for Syrian refugees, especially in the neighbouring countries sheltering them (European Commission, 2016). For this reason, the EU can claim to be the biggest provider of humanitarian aid in the Syrian civil war (European External Action Service, 2017a), by far its most important role in a conflict it can otherwise influence only feebly.



ESDP actions in Libya and their deficiencies


In order to illustrate on which policy instruments the EU places its emphasis, the following section will examine general categories and specific examples of frameworks in the MENA region. One can distinguish between the frameworks of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) and of the EU's respective Neighbourhood and Development policies. When it comes to action undertaken under the ESDP's framework, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya serves an illustrative example. EUBAM is a civilian mission, which aims at supporting Libyan authorities in protecting Libya's borders. The EU does so by advising and training Libyan authorities, as well as building new capacities such as the cross-ministerial Border Management Working Group. However, the political instability in Libya has caused EUBAM to operate from Tunisia (European External Action Service, 2016). With regard to the situation in Libya, the EU's Malta Summit in February saw an agreement between the UN-backed Government of National Accord and the EU, which allows the EU to patrol Libyan waters in order to stop migrant boats from reaching European shores.


Moreover, the EU will allocate €200 million to bolster Libyan border control. There are doubts, however, whether this financial aid is well-spent given that Libya's territory is divided in many different influence spheres, for which multiple actors compete: the UN-backed Government of National Accord, the Government of National Salvation, which is backed by Turkey and Qatar, and the House of Representatives in Tobruk, which is backed by the unofficial Libyan National Army and its commander General Haftar, who is backed by Egypt and Russia (European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017). One could therefore argue that it makes little sense to give money to a government, which does not have full control of vital parts of the state's territory. Furthermore, a leaked EEAS report revealed that the Libyan ministries, tasked with border protection, were not in control of defence forces, poorly trained and struggling with problems regarding financial management and efficacy and one was even occupied by militias (European External Action Service, 2017b).


The Libyan case illustrates the controversy of some EU foreign policy instruments quite well, as the allocation of large amounts of financial aid does not translate easily into a melioration of circumstances. Even though the EU's institutions seem to be aware of this problem, they continue to devote money to institutions who are not fit to use it efficiently. That is not to say that the EU treats development aid as a panacea. But the EU's capacity building efforts have had problems as well, mainly because they do not bring significant short-term operational success. Therefore they do not enjoy great political support, which in case of the ESDP is crucial since these missions largely depend on personnel delegated by Member States.



Ensuring stability and security in the EU's southern neighbourhood


In order to maintain prosperity and wealth in Europe, the EU has great interest to keep its borderland stable, focussing mainly on economic market reforms and a control of migration. This export of norms and rules was institutionalised by the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). For a long time, the EU was willing to work with authoritarian governments, such as the one of Qaddafi in Libya, as he agreed to stop migration from Africa to Europe, as well as Ben Ali in Tunisia, regardless of the countries' bad human rights record. North African countries were pushed to reform the economic systems, allow market liberalisation and privatisation, in order to attract investment from the EU and have access to the EU's internal market. Similarly, Morocco and Jordan were given "advanced status". The combination of authoritarianism and neoliberal market policies widened the gulf between the rich and the poor, adding to the discontent, which eventually led to millions across the region to take to the streets and protest against their governments in 2011 (Del Sarto, 2016, p.224f).


The events of the Arab Spring demonstrated how difficult it is for the EU to develop a common position on how to react to the protests across the region in 2011. The French government even accepted to ship tear gas grenades to Tunis shortly before Ben Ali was toppled and after the EU had already frozen his assets (Del Sarto, 2016, p.225). Furthermore, Libya saw France and the United Kingdom join the NATO-led intervention that eventually brought an end to Qaddafi's regime, while Italy opposed any EU action for fear of rising numbers of migrants reaching its shores after a destablisation of Libya (Del Sarto, 2016, p.225).


The Arab Spring also brought about a doctrinal change within the framework of the ENP, leading the EU to place more emphasis on democratic transformation, constitutional reform, anti-corruption and the protection of fundamental freedoms, along with its continued support for economic liberalisation. However, the EU has not stopped working with authoritarian governments such as the ones in Egypt and Algeria (Del Sarto, 2016, p.226). To sum up, the ENP has yet to provide the improvement and development since its change of focus and alteration to enforced training of local staff, policy implementation guidance and democratic reform (Seeberg and Shteiwi, 2017, p. 16f).



Powerlessness in Syria


In the face of the Syrian war, the EU has struggled to make an impact on the outcome of the war and to bring about a cessation of hostilities. The ongoing migrant crisis, resulting from the instability and military conflict, has mounted pressure for action of both national governments as well as the EU collectively, but so far, the EU has not been able to live up to its expectations. The EU has taken a strong verbal stance on the atrocities committed by the government of Bashar al-Assad and has made his removal a conditia sine qua non for a peaceful political future for Syria.


However, this idealistic vision has proven to be unrealistic and ineffective and hence, the EU's influence on developments to alter the course of the war are minor. The war has become a proxy war between the United States, Russia, Turkey and Iran, among others (Pierini, 2016). The power vacuum in some territories has given rise to terrorist movements such as Da'ech. As mentioned above, the EU is the world's largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syria as it tries to support humanitarian facilities in Syria and its neighbouring countries, as the number of Syrian refugees has reached 5 million in March 2017 (UNHCR, 2017) and the number of people in need of humanitarian aid is estimated at around 13.5 million (Pierini, 2016). Furthermore, the EU continuously produces roadmaps for a future after the war, efforts to rebuild Syria's infrastructure and political system (Example: Council of the EU, 2017). However, there is little perspective as to the reconciliation of the warring parties, as well as the way to the inclusion of Sunni Arabs into their home countries' political systems, both in Iraq and Syria, after widespread discontent over their political and social exclusion has caused some to at least tolerate Da'ech taking control of their regions.


The most decisive action of European countries against Da'ech is not taken under the framework of the EU, but rather by individual Member States willing to support US operations in Syria such as France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and Denmark (Pierini, 2016). Apart from financial support for humanitarian causes in Syria, the EU has used another instrument of soft power by imposing sanctions against individuals associated with the Assad regime and established an embargo on the Syrian oil industry (Karakir and Karacasulu, 2016). Moreover, the EU suspended the draft Association Agreement with Syria as well as bilateral cooperation programs (Karakir and Karacasulu, 2016, p.534).


The Syrian war has exposed the lack of political will to take collective action as crucial EU Member States were divided as to the question whether to engage militarily. In general, efforts by the EU to exert its soft power to end the war seem futile in the face of the stalemate between sporadic US air strikes, which have yet to have a significant strategic impact on the war, and both the resilience of the Assad regime and the extent of its allies', most notably Russia's and Iran's, military support (Pierini, 2016). Furthermore, the Western-led Geneva talks for a cessation of hostilities now faces competition from the Astana Process, initiated by Russia, Turkey and Iran.





The EU's role as a global actor at times seems undermined by its inability to add more decisive components to its soft power measures and diplomatic toolkit. The EU's development assistance to its southern borderland has not yet proven to be the substratum for democracy and economic prosperity it set out to be. Much rather, it is a way of creating economic ties and new markets for EU exports in exchange for the stability and protection of EU borders. Capacity building under the framework of the ESDP in both Iraq and Libya have only had lackluster success and continue to hinge on the political will of the Member States.


The war in Syria, albeit a testimony of the EU's minuscule impact on the realpolitik and the outcome of the military conflict, however it also illustrates the importance of the EU as an idealistic peace project with its relentless engagement for the security of internally displaced people and refugees for whose shelter the EU is trying to provide and whose suffering the EU is trying to ease. 



Stefan is currently pursuing two bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration in Vienna, Austria. Previously, he has been working as an intern for the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, a Tanzanian NGO focusing on community development and youth empowerment and an Austrian NGO monitoring human rights. During the spring semester of 2017, he will spend an exchange semester at Sciences Po in Paris. His academic interests are the Middle East, security, and disarmament. He is a member of the EU Foreign Policy Research Group responsible for covering the Middle East and North Africa region. 






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