EU attempts extreme makeover

«Through the neighborhood policy, the EU has shown its solidarity with its Mediterranean partners,» said Jan-Erik Enestam at the dawn of the Finnish EU presidency, referring to the bloc’s three-year-old blueprint designed to strengthen ties with its southeastern neighbors. But the Nordic environment minister did not tell the whole truth. The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), like the concurrent albeit older Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), is not all altruism. One should rather look for concerns closer at home. «The ENP is about political and economic reform. It’s a carrot. The Europeans are buying things. They are exchanging security and reforms with seductive programs because they think that in this way their borders with the Arab partner states will be stable,» Ziyad Alawneh, of a Jordanian NGO, told Kathimerini English Edition. Stability, in the minds of Brussels policy-makers, means no invasion by impoverished, job-hunting masses. «We want economic prosperity,» Alawneh said. «And that is what the Europeans want. If we have enough jobs, why should we migrate to Europe? If we have enough money, why should we turn to Europe?» Germany, which succeeded Finland at the EU helm on January 1, has pledged action to bolster ties with the Arab nations to the south. The energy-rich and strategically important EU neighbors including Russia (which has a special «strategic partnership» agreement with Brussels) and other former Soviet states also feature high on the agenda. Speaking at the launch of Germany’s EU presidency, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pledged that Berlin would «give impetus to the further development» of the policy. «I believe we must do more here – for all of the EU’s neighbors, in the east as in the south,» he said. «This means greater cooperation in individual sectors, possible participation in the internal market and more scientific and cultural exchange.» The EU’s neighborhood policy, launched in 2004, covers the countries of the Mediterranean as well as the southern Caucasus and Eastern Europe, offering financial and technical assistance as well as gradual access to the common market in return for EU-minded reforms. The EU will feed them with some 12 billion euros until 2013, 32 percent more in real terms than the last budget period. The policy runs parallel to the Euro-Med program, also dubbed the «Barcelona process,» which was launched in 1995 in a bid to exercise the bloc’s much-vaunted soft power beyond the zone of EU hopefuls. As part of this Med-focused strategy, Brussels offers economic incentives – an ill-afforded 3 billion euros per year – in exchange for economic and political reform. It has also made an ambitious promise to create a free trade zone by 2010. The program links the 25 members with 10 partners around the Mediterranean: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and (the sole EU-candidate) Turkey. EU soft power These used to be poor countries in need of cash and policy advice to escape poverty. In the post-September 11 world, they are also Muslim countries that need to be kept safe from the hands of Islamic extremists. It’s preemption EU-style. Europe is reaching out to its rough neighbors, before they come to Europe. «We must rise to the challenge of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity for our neighbors. There is no better way of doing this than by supporting their political and economic reforms,» Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a recent presentation of the program’s future objectives. Unlike its more heavy-handed partner across the Atlantic, the EU claims to take a more holistic approach to security concerns, placing strong emphasis on environmental issues. «It is well known that conflict over limited resources, such as water, are a contributing factor in instability; regional cooperation on environment can help provide a bridge between warring communities as they come together to address jointly owned environmental challenges,» Soledad Blanco of the Commission’s DG for environment said in an e-mail interview. But self-interested as the EU’s motives may be, many Arab activists actually welcome some outside interference, disillusioned as they are with the persisting failure of local governments to navigate a more liberal and prosperous course. «What is happening is actually good for the Arab states. Sure, I don’t like to see reforms come from outside. It should be us who should be seeking change. But since we are not taking the initiative, then so be it,» Alawneh said. In December, the Commission issued an assessment of the neighborhood policy, sector by sector and country by country. «Some of what has been achieved is visible, some – especially concerning institution-building and capacity-building – less so,» Blanco said. But most (of what is visible, at least) leaves a lot to be desired. Lebanon and Palestine are a mess. Reform in Egypt, Syria and Algeria has been minimal if at all. The recent oil dispute involving Russia and Belarus showed that the EU’s alliances in the region are more fragile than some would like to think. The problem with the EU’s policies, critics say, is that there is no EU accession at the end of the road. It’s hard to see how these states will be convinced into meeting the EU demands without the carrot of membership. EU officials remain upbeat. «We believe it is possible to make progress without a promise of membership. The ENP is not about membership of the EU (and in any case the majority of ENP partners are not geographically European). It is a response to long-standing requests from many of these countries for closer relations, founded on partnership and joint ownership. For all ENP partners, the ENP is about deepening and improving relations now,» Blanco noted. It seems change is achieved only in the countries that wish to change. Paradoxically, resistance often comes from governments inside the EU fortress. Take the doubtful creation of a free-market zone. «Member countries like Greece fear that cheap products will overwhelm the local market,» said Michael Scoullos of the Athens-based Mediterranean Information Office (MIO-ECSDE). NGOs stir waters But not all is gloom. Despite the absence of any major economic or political breakthrough, the EU initiatives are stirring the waters. Much of the success, experts say, comes from the hard work of NGOs that provide a deep well of experience in areas such as development, environmental protection and human rights. «Many Arab states have witnessed the revolution of the NGO movement,» said Emad Adly, the Egyptian president of the Arab NGO Network for Environment and Development (RAED). For Blanco, »there is an important role to be played in transition by civil society and non-governmental organizations – in pushing for reforms, in holding governments accountable, in giving feedback and reporting on progress.» Critics warn that NGOs often suffer from the same failings that beset the places they’re out to cure: unaccountability, corruption, red-tape and dependence. The EU agencies must put do-gooders to scrutiny and make sure they are real NGOs, not fig leaves for domestic and private agendas. To be sure, everything is not perfect. But, overall, few will deny the transformative power of NGOs and their ability to function as a medium as well as a message. «Consultation with civil society,» Scoullos said, «is slowly introducing closed societies to the working of democratic institutions.» Luckily for the EU, many people in the Arab world have a dream of seeing their countries grow a bit more like Europe’s. «We need change, we need to become democratic,» said Alawneh. «But we have to have patience. We must criticize ourselves and listen to the criticism of others.»

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