An agency of the EU
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton during a debate about Libya at the European Parliament, Strasbourg, 9 March 2011. © Philippe Sautier/SIPA

Q: Impotent bystanders? How did the EU and US respond to the Arab Spring?

Debate - 27 September 2011

Henning Riecke

German Council on Foreign Relations

Head of US/Transatlantic Relations Programme

 


A: Well in rhetoric, predictable in delivery

The EU needs European governments to champion its role in the Arab Spring, but its members are not so enthusiastic. Do European governments understand the strategic importance of getting involved, and the urgency of doing so? The US seems to.


 

The Arab Spring might as well be Europe's finest season. The EU could play a major role in creating the economic momentum to help make the slow changes in the Arab world more durable. Europe has an interest in the stable and peaceful progress of the Arab spring – migration, disruptions and failing states are of direct concern to the Union as a whole, much more than to the American partners. The US has similar values, but different geostrategic interests behind its policy towards the Arab spring.

The EU has freed up quite a bit of money - 1.2 bn Euros in addition to its ENP budgets. While the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank built up their support of projects in the Arab world, Germany added funds to help small and medium companies in the region, as well as democratisation. The US took some time to fully support the democratic movements, but caught up quickly. President Obama, as expressed in his speech on 19 May, raised development and economic transition to the top of his regional agenda, with new Overseas Development Assistance and the cancellation of debts.

New governments in the Arab world, eager to settle and avoid foreign domination, are finding it difficult to sort out the offers of foreign donors. The EU, then, would do well to establish itself as the go-to partner to solve the biggest problem in the Arab world: jobs. What unites these diverse Arab countries currently in utter turmoil is the growing bulge of young people with no economic prospects. There is no burgeoning generation behind them who can cover the costs of social security in better times. For them get educated and find a job is a matter of survival – all the more reason why they have been taking to the streets. So what can the EU do?

  • Focus ideas for temporary migration on education programs and work for young Arabs in Europe, together with assistance to re-integrate and start businesses in the countries of origin.
  • Ensure Arab companies get better access to the European market. EU standards must be achieved on the side of the producing countries, itself a possible objective for development aid.
  • Direct investment is more difficult. Production could benefit from a skilled workforce and low wages in the Arab world. Foreign companies need a stable business climate and a stable security environment for their operations.

These approaches can only succeed if the Member States support them. The EU needs European governments to champion its role in the Arab Spring. But its members are not so enthusiastic, though. Revolutionary change calls for some caution when it comes to taking sides. Yet the result with EU Member States, however, is often a 'wait and see' approach. Do European governments understand the strategic importance of getting involved, and the urgency of doing so? The US seems to.