Thursday, January 20, 2011
The Crumbling Façade of Europe’s Bulwark of Stability
The events in Tunisia are a bitter lesson for the EU’s indulgent policy towards Ben Ali’s repressive regime. Europe has remained silent for a long time and did not show any intention to intervene in Tunisia when Ben Ali’s regime oppressed various democratic freedoms. The fear of major destabilization in the region hindered the EU in insisting on a political opening of Tunisia’s regime. The EU’s policy towards the North African state focused on economic matters, security and counter-terrorism, and maintaining stability and the status-quo. This approach discredited the EU’s foreign policy and considerably deteriorated its once-significant standing in the neighboring region. The EU and France should engage themselves more actively to pursue a peaceful transition in Tunisia and urgently need to improve their dialogue with the leaders of the Arab states, as there are signs that popular movements might erupt in the Mediterranean area.
When the first wave of protest erupted in mid-December in Tunisia, the international community did not pay much attention. The protests, sparked by high youth unemployment, rising food prices, and pressing social problems, started locally in the Tunisian periphery but quickly spread to other parts of the country, the capital Tunis, and even neighboring countries. The protests have turned more and more into a political movement, nourished by a frustration with the corrupt regime of President Zin Al-Abiden Ben Ali, a lack of democracy, and human rights abuses. The current second wave of protest was supported by a larger part of the Tunisian society. Ben Ali, having been in power for 23 years, came under increased pressure to control the violence, as the protests have become more political in nature and are directed against the regime.
When Ben Ali stepped down on January 14th, after weeks of worsening riots, it was not only a victory for the protesters in Tunisia, but was also a warning towards other autocratic regimes in the region. The regimes in Algeria, Libya and Egypt fear a spillover to their countries because the people might feel encouraged to express their anger against the despots and demand economic, social, and political reforms. If a third wave of protests inspired by the Jasmine Revolution erupts in these countries as well, the regimes will no longer be able to hinder real devolution of political power.
The unrest in Tunisia was already ongoing for almost a month before it got international attention. While the protests had been discussed extensively in social networks and journalists, bloggers, and activists had reported steadily about the Tunisian revolt on Twitter, the events in North Africa were only a marginal note in the international press. Similarly, the international community sat back for a long time without taking notice of the tensions. Only after the bloody protests during the second weekend of January did the US, EU, UN, and France officially react to the protests, criticize the brutal response of Tunisia’s police forces, and express their concern about the freedom of expression.
Still, the various responses by the world powers have been fairly low-key without encouraging or supporting the democratic aspirations of the Tunisian people. The international community has essentially said very little about Ben Ali’s autocratic rule and has not made it clear that its repressive State security apparatus and human rights violations are unacceptable and contrary to Tunisia’s international commitments. The low level of coverage in the media and the reserved reaction of the world powers gave Ben Ali’s regime a free pass to crackdown violently on the protests with police and military forces.
The passive role of the EU comes particularly surprising as Europe is directly affected by the social tensions and the political situation in the Maghreb. The EU should be particularly concerned about the situation in the Southern backyard, which could destabilize the whole region: New local conflicts can emerge, the economic situation could worsen, Islamist movements could gain more grounds, and the pressures to migrate to Europe could grow.
When the riots peaked in the beginning of January, Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, was in the Middle East for a two-day visit. No statement was given on the situation in the Maghreb even though it was the EU that created the vision of a unified Mediterranean space consisting of North Africa and the Middle East. This shows that the EU policy towards the region, after more than 15 years of Euro-Mediterranean initiatives, has not improved the dialogue between the regional actors, let alone established a political framework where these issues could be discussed. The EU hardly commented on the situation, although the stability of the Southern Mediterranean countries has been one of the main subjects of the policy approach towards the region. Tunisia was long considered to be a bulwark of stability in the neighborhood, although social tensions have been rising constantly over the last decade.
Tunisia – the poster child for Europe
After Tunisia gained independence from France in 1957, the small country, with a population of 10 million, achieved considerable progress in terms of economic and social modernization, along with a good educational and healthcare system. Tunisia is considered to be a role model of the Mediterranean region in several areas.
Economically, the small North African country is often described as the poster child of developing economies. Economic reforms have progressed, inflation has lowered, the savings rate has increased, and the budget deficit has remained stable. The Global Competitiveness Index of 2010 from the World Economic Forum ranks Tunisia as the 32nd most competitive economy – the highest in all of Africa. The strong economic growth during the past decade is intertwined with Europe, which has been supporting the Tunisian economy with cash, investment, and economic assistance. Within the Barcelona process Tunisia received the highest amount of aid per capita of all of the Mediterranean countries, amounting to about 80 million euros per year. The trade relationship between Europe and the Maghreb country is robust and the EU is Tunisia’s most important trade partner. More than 60 percent of Tunisia’s imports come from the EU and it exports between 70 - 80% of its total exports to the EU. Economic relations are strong and Tunisia’s economy is very integrated with the European single market. Tunisia became the first Southern Mediterranean country to have a free trade area with the EU for industrial products, with prospects for further liberalization ahead (e.g.: services, the right of establishment, and even agriculture).
Politically, Tunisia is a close and reliable partner for Europe and one of the most cooperative partner states within Euro-Mediterranean relations. Tunisia was the first Mediterranean country to sign an Association Agreement with the EU within the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) in 1995. EU-Tunisian relations have made significant advances within the EMP since 1995, as well as in the bilateral European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). In the European Commission’s reports regarding the implementation of the ENP Action Plan, Tunisia has achieved steady progress in a number of cooperation areas. The North African country has been keen to upgrade its bilateral relations with the EU and demanded the benefits of an advanced status with the EU in November 2008. Like Morocco, the government of Tunisia requested this new status, which would bring several economic benefits (e.g.: preferential trade conditions) and political benefits, since these benefits improve Tunisia’s international image. The European Commission established an ad-hoc group in mid-2010, which began working on a roadmap with the aim of promoting their relations to an advanced status. Because Tunisia has good relations with its neighbors, the country has always played a positive role towards setting up a free trade area in the Mediterranean rim and towards regional integration in the Maghreb.
Despite Tunisia’s steady economic growth, the employment outlook remains poor. The average unemployment rate throughout the country is around 14 percent. Large parts of Tunisian society have not benefited from economic reforms and the situation is especially acute among young people. The demand for jobs among the increasing number of youths has not been addressed and the global financial crisis has further worsened employment figures. University graduates suffer the most from the low performance of the labor market. According to World Bank statistics, the unemployment rate for individuals with higher education between 20-29 years of age is about 27 percent.
Shortcomings on the road to democracy
Tunisia’s achievements in the mentioned areas, however, have not led to a political transition. The modernization process under way and the economic reforms have not shown the potential of driving more democratic reforms. Ben Ali’s regime has not improved upon the basis of its legitimacy and has resisted any degree of political opening. The existence of opposition and opponents of the regime have not been tolerated. The repressive grip of the Tunisian authorities has drastically restricted press freedoms, and the freedom of expression.
Despite the fact that Ben Ali promised to enhance democratic reforms in his election campaign in 2009, the situation has worsened during the course of the last year. Ben Ali and his Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) intensified the amount of repression against opposition parties and human rights activists. The lack of political institutions that could be used as channels of representation of the society, combined with the low confidence in state institutions, are enduring features of Tunisian society.
In Europe, Ben Ali’s record was well known, since the ENP Action Plan steadily reported shortcomings in the areas of human rights, justice, and freedom of expression. But even if these issues were addressed in the various subcommittees and working groups, no consequences from the EU have followed.
Quid pro quo – A political trade-off
With the creation of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership in 1995, the EU committed itself to consolidate stability and prosperity in the Mediterranean region and to promote the values of dialogue and solidarity. In the Association Agreement signed with Tunisia and in the Action Plan of the ENP, Brussels and Tunis committed to gradually encourage political modernization, democracy, and human rights.
However, in practice, Brussels has not put democratic values high on the agenda and has not insisted enough on the core norms and values of the partnership ranging from democracy to human rights. The EU’s efforts to support human rights and good governance projects within the EMP and the ENP have not led to democratic structures and the expected political change. Many projects to support transparency and the rule of law have not brought about any important results, as the money or the technical assistance spent on these reforms flow directly to the Tunisian authorities. Independent human rights activists and representatives of civil society were supported less in order to maintain stable relations with the Tunisian government. Ben Ali’s ban of foreign human rights organizations in the country was not met with any consequences from the EU.
Positive and negative conditionality was not used as an instrument to reward or sanction reforms in these areas. Any use of conditionality was blocked by the partner state’s governments or the EU hesitated to set certain conditions for their support (e.g.: trade benefits or aid) in order to maintain good relations with the government. As a trade-off, Ben Ali’s regime cooperated in important areas for the EU such as illegal migration, Islamist fundamentalism, or terror-related issues. The EU’s interests have been focusing largely on security cooperation (counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, and illegal migration), stability, and economic matters (investment and economic reforms) and have outweighed any pushes for democratic reform, since this might lead to a destabilizing situation in the region and bring anti-Western forces to power. Thus, the EU’s policy-making in the Southern periphery is undermining the values upheld by the European Union and the commitments inherent in the Association Agreement to strengthen democracy and political participation. As long as the benefits outweigh the costs, the EU and European leaders prefer the status-quo and have relations with autocratic but cooperative governments. The EU’s tendency to support pro-regime policies that offer stability has secured stable, dependable, and reliable relations with Arab autocrats.
Despite all critics, the EU’s strategy towards the Mediterranean should not be considered to be a genuine democratization agenda imposing democratic change from outside. A partnership does not include the right to blindly pressure sovereign governments on democratic reform and intervene in domestic issues. Europe does not have a great deal of leverage in the region and any serious and public intervention in domestic politics could bring instability and disruption. Thus, the demand for democratic change must come from the society itself but the EU can be more active to support human rights organizations and pro-democratic forces.
A ring of authoritarian regimes
In conclusion, the EU’s “ring of friends” rhetoric has become rather a “ring of friendly regimes” agenda. Brussels’ approach that maintained the status-quo did not bring domestic stability in Tunisia. Although many indicators rank Tunisia as a highly developed country, behind the façade Tunisia’s internal balance has been uneasy for years.
The uprising in Tunisia could be followed by similar popular movements in Arab countries, which would affect the whole region and have heavy geopolitical repercussions. After the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, which was based on repression and control, the people of other Arab countries might feel encouraged to protest against their regimes. The Tunisian people’s overthrow of their government will intensify the pressure for change, with a possibility that the resistance to dynastic successions can be replicated in other countries.
Many Arab regimes present similar political conditions and social characteristics: Aging authoritarian leaders whose long-surviving regimes have prevented a real rotation of power. A lack of legitimacy, accountability, and transparency, along with manipulated elections, corruption, and a suppressed opposition are among them. The people do not benefit from the wealth, which is in the hands of a few who derive substantial economic assets. A depoliticized society, high unemployment, poor living conditions for large parts of the society, and a large, frustrated youthful population that lacks perspective can be found in Algeria and Egypt and, to some extent, in Libya and Jordan.
There is the potential for growing unrest among the youth, already noticeable in Algeria or Jordan, which could rapidly expand all over the region. For instance, in Algeria, the anger has recently increased against price increases on some basic foods. Although the protests and the riots vary and some states, such as Egypt, for example, are more resilient than other Arab regimes, the risks of a spill-over and similar unrest emerging in the region exists. This bottom-up demand for democracy could gradually bring regime change to the Arab world. A genuine democratic movement, not installed from outside, would be unique and significant for the whole Southern Mediterranean area.