Europe, the Arab World and the Spring

In the fractious, rife-with-conflicts Arab World, described for long time as immune to democratic transformations, revolts sneaked in, toppling some regimes and shaking the thrones of others. Despite the great efforts and numerous investments and projects in the region, the perception of Arab masses has not changed in a way that reflects the deep and serious commitments made by both the EU and European states.

Three years have passed since the advent of the Arab Spring and Europe, among others, was quick in its response and adopted a new approach to relations with its Southern neighbors. By 8 March, 2011, Catherine Ashton and the European Commission proposed “a partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”[1].At a time when the EU is in deep economic and financial crisis, billions of euros have been budgeted for grant support to the Neighborhood. For instance, the European Commission has allocated € 80.5 million to the refugee crisis in North Africa, while EU Member States have provided € 73 million, as an immediate financial response to provide humanitarian aid[2].

The European Investment Bank (EIB) increased its budget for the Southern Neighborhood from € 4 billion to € 5 billion for humanitarian aid. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) extended its geographical coverage to include the Southern Neighborhood and provided up to € 2.5 billion per year to support public and private investments[3].The EU has also endorsed programs like the SPRING (Support for Partnership Reform and Inclusive Growth)program, the creation of a Civil Society Facility for the neighborhood and an Erasmus Mundus program, and makes the total budget, to strengthen the capacity of civil society to promote reform and increase public accountability in their countries, more than € 350 million for 2011 and 2012. Furthermore, in its budget for the period 2014-2020, the European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI) has allocated € 15.433 billion to support the 16 partner countries of the Neighborhood[4].

Distressingly, these significant efforts were not interpreted into tangible results. The perception of Arab masses favored other players and not the EU. This conclusion was put forward by several polls showing the rise of the popularity of others, compared to the EU, in the Arab World.

In a survey conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESAV) in 2011, 78% of Arabs saw Turkey “the most favorable” country[5].Despite a slight decline, Turkey remained the most favorable country with 69% one year after the start of the Arab Spring, according to TESAV 2012 polls[6].Although the way people perceived EU’s role differed from one country to another, the third Euromed investigation, presented to the European Parliament, showed that between December 2011 and February 2012 most of the opinions also favored Turkey, which could beat the EU as a “supporter” of the Arab Spring countries, while the European Union ranked second, and the United States third[7].

A 2013 survey by TESAV has shown that the positive perception about Turkey in the Arab World has decreased, with 59% supporting a greater regional role for Turkey, but was not replaced by the EU. Turkey ranked third in 2013 in terms of positive perception, after the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia[8].The TESAV poll has also shown an increase in the positive perceptions about Russia and China in the Arab World[9].

In fact, many European officials have not seen these challenges facing the EU and its role in the region, calling it at times “weak”, as uttered bluntly by Dick Toornstra, director at the Office for Promotion of Parliamentary Democracy (OPPD) in the European Parliament in an interview with Euractiv on 6 May 2013, when he considered the Arab Spring “a wake-up call” that revealed the lack of a coherent and consistently applied foreign policy[10].In an attempt to identify the reason behind Arabs’ aversion to the EU or seeking a bigger role for the EU in the region, a number of explanations can explain this state of affairs.

First and foremost, the EU has been seen by Arabs as one of the key supporters of their former autocratic regimes, intensifying collaboration with Ben Ali in Tunisia, frequently visiting and receiving Mubarak of Egypt, heavily cooperating with Gaddafi in Libya, ostensibly turning a blind eye to Assad’s wrongdoings in Syria and plainly providing assistance for Saleh in Yemen. Such a perception cannot just vanish overnight.

Second, the EU continued its collaboration with NGO’s and organizations labeled for their loyalty to toppled regimes. All the projects and assistance the EU provides to the Arab World have been channeled through the same organizations during the reign of dictatorships. Choosing new channels and may be replacing some of these NGO’s by others at this critical transitional period, is deemed essential for not being caught complying with the old regimes.

Third, the European model is an appealing tool that demonstrates the strength of Europe’s potential soft power. Yet, this power has been, so far, neutralized by the lack of coherent policies and an ineffective role in the region. The crux of this state of affairs was summarized by the director of the Center for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Avi Primor, who described in 2004 European role in the Middle East Peace Process as “un coup d’épée dans l’eau” (“a sword strike in the water”) – not carrying any weight[11].

In other words, as long as the European Union does not formulate a common, coherent foreign and defense policy, it will remain on the doorstep of the Arab World, unable to play a major role. This fact has been realized by Arab masses, which currently cannot envision a bigger role for the EU, given the enormous clouts the United States and others have in the region.

Fourth is the consecutive failure of EU’s efforts to embrace regional countries under one umbrella: think Barcelona Process in 1995, European Neighborhood Policy framework in 2004, the European Neighborhood Policy Instrument (ENPI) in 2007 and Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in 2008. None of these efforts has borne fruit, making it more likely for any future efforts to get the cold shoulder from Arabs.

Finally, old memories of the era of colonization still persist in such a way that makes it difficult for many Arabs to digest a deeper European involvement in the region. However, the Arab Spring has unleashed a set of new dynamics. Given the depleting popularity of the United States and as Arabs’ compassion toward others has chilled somewhat (due to their controversial regional policies), a power vacuum is remaining and expanding. Europe’s odds for building influence and re-setting relations are on the rise, considering geographic proximity, its soft power and common history.

Nonetheless, as grim as the picture may appear, there are glimmers of light. Chief adviser to the prime minister of Turkey Ibrahim Kalin says: “The future of the nation-state depends on its ability to adjust itself to the new realities of a very complex and sophisticated process of globalization and regionalization”[12]. In this vein, one would argue that the EU may need to have its policies reviewed, adjusted and replaced by sound and realistic ones. For example, Europe has a lot to offer in the realms of education and democracy, noting that the current developments in the Arab World have highlighted the solid connection between education and sound democracy.

Moreover, solving the perennial problems of migration and radicalization can be realized through encouraging economic cooperation, which will not only help fight poverty, radicalization and migration, but would certainly embed democracy. Encouraging intra-regional interaction, job creation, investment, lending experience and know-how and promoting tourism are other key policies that would help solve desperate socioeconomic conditions that triggered Arab uprisings.



Associate research fellow at the Institute for Middle East Studies Canada (IEMSC) and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sunderland (United Kingdom)



[1] The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European Commission, A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood. A review of European Neighbourhood Policy, (May 25, 2011).

[2] The European Commission, The EU’s response to the ‘Arab Spring’, (December 16, 2011).

[3] Ibid.

[5] M. Akgün and S. S. Gündoğar, The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East 2011 (Istanbul: Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, 2012) p. 5.

[6] M. Akgün and S. S. Gündoğar, The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East 2012 (Istanbul: Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, 2012) p. 6.

[7] H. Malmvig and F. Tassinari, “The Arab Spring and the External Actors’ Role in the Euro-Mediterranean Region”, in A. Bassols and S. Florensa (eds), Euro-Med Survey of Experts and Actors: Euro-med Policies in light of the Arab Spring (Barcelona: IEMED, 2012), p. 94-95.

[8] M. Akgün and S. S. Gündoğar, Ortadoğu’da Türkiye Algısı 2013 (Istanbul: Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, 2013) p. 6.

[9] Ibid., p. 9.

[10] D. Toornstra, “EU official: The Arab Spring revealed our weaknesses”, (May 6, 2013).

[11] A. Primor, “The European Union and the Middle East – Mutual Indispensability”, Palestine–Israel Journal, vol. 11 no. 2 (2004).

[12] I. Kalın, “Turkey and the Middle East: Ideology or Geo-Politics?”, Private View, no. 13 (Autumn, 2008),  p. 26.