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In the wake of the uprisings

By Jan Wouters and Sanderijn Duquet

In early 2011, a series of revolutionary chain reactions against uncompromising and authoritarian regimes set the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) in motion. The popular uprisings spread quickly across the Arab world and their effects continue today. While the world’s attention today is on the latest security developments in Egypt and Syria, this blog post will focus on multilateral approaches to foreign policy and trade. As is well known, the civil protests have affected existing geopolitical balances. Prominent international actors are being challenged to strategically rethink their policies towards the region.

In its own attempt to address the rapid changes, the European Union (‘EU’ of ‘Union’) has been making structural efforts to engage bilaterally with Arab States. In addition, the EU has also enforced multilateral processes by embracing the expertise of regional multilateral organizations, including the League of Arab States (Arab League), and to a lesser extent the African Union (AU), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Union representatives met regularly with their regional counterparts and have been active participants in informal gatherings (Friends of Syria, Friends of Yemen). At least partly driven by its own experiences in achieving peace and economic prosperity through integration, the Union has proposed tools that would facilitate the active engagement of Arab countries with each other.

This approach – enhancing regional cooperation through multilateral processes – is not entirely new to European foreign policy thinking. In fact, the Arab uprisings have accelerated existing processes more than they have redefined them. The EU, with its close historical, geographical, and cultural links with the region, has been moulding its policies vis-à-vis the Arab world for decades. Two key examples demonstrate this.

Flag of the Arab League
Flag of the Arab League

The first concerns the noteworthy rapprochement between the EU and the Arab League. Led by Secretary-General Amr Moussa, the League reinvented itself as an advocate of the protesters’ claims throughout the Arab world. This is remarkable for an organization that for a long time had been primarily occupied with safeguarding the independence and sovereignty of its Member States. Moreover, until recently, it operated in a climate of weak democratic practice. Even so, the enhanced EU-Arab League cooperation did not come out of thin air. The Arab League had been included in all meetings of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the central multilateral instrument to govern EuroMed relations, EMP) since 2008. In March 2010, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs had visited the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, where she indicated her appreciation for the ‘growing co-operation with the Arab League, with programmes that are aimed at bringing us closer together’.

The Arab uprisings clearly created momentum for the EU and the Arab League to continue those cooperative efforts. The Union and the Arab League established a Situation Room, permanent focal points and an EU-Arab League Liaison Office in Malta to implement joint projects. The Union also trains Arab League officials and shares good practices. In addition to the immediate political and operational support, the EU and the Arab League have engaged in exploratory talks regarding how the EU can support cooperation between Arab League Member States in the economic, social, educational, cultural and legal fields. The structural redefinition of the EU-Arab League relationship therefore bears strong potential and can potentially contribute to regional security, stability, and prosperity.

A second example concerns the EU’s trade policy. In trade relations, the Union has been struggling to encourage Arab partners to cooperate among each other. Ever since it proclaimed its ambitious 1995 Barcelona Declaration, the EU aims at gradually establishing a free trade area covering its Member States and the Southern Mediterranean. By 2010, the EU had largely fulfilled its part of the arrangement by concluding bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). The key issue, however, is that for the multi-State area to be completed, FTAs also need to be concluded among the Southern Mediterranean partners themselves. Yet, the only partners that have engaged in such projects so far are Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. These countries concluded the Agadir Agreement, which entered into force in 2006, in accordance with the provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of 1994 (GATT) and the EU rules of origin. Despite the difficulties faced, the EU has assumed a role in enhancing intra-Arab trade facilitation. Through its neighbourhood policy, it has been financially supporting the consolidation of the Agadir Agreement. Two-and-a-half years since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the EU continues its multilateral efforts. First, in its May 2012 Resolution on Trade for Change, the European Parliament recalled that it encourages the Treaty signatories to widen the membership of their trade relationship. Meanwhile, the European Commission has supported the Palestinian Authority’s request to accession. The request was accepted by the current signatory partners, who have started preparatory talks. Second, the  Commission Implementing Decision on the Regional South Annual Action Programme of 2013 reaffirms the EU’s position as an important donor for the Agadir Technical Unit (ATU). The ATU was set up under the Agreement as an international body with the objective to facilitate regional economic integration. This being said, a recurring challenge for the EU is the development of comprehensive, multilateral policies while at the same time effectively differentiating its bilateral relations. Since 2011, bilateral approaches have (again) gained prominence in the EU’s trade relations with the MENA. The Commission started to conduct negotiations to establish deep and comprehensive free trade agreements (DCFTAs) with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia that may lead to giving these countries a stake in the internal market.

The Arab uprisings have shaken up a large region and still continue to do so. But they have also brought about opportunities for the countries in North Africa and the Middle East to expand cooperation among each other, both politically and economically. At the same time, it becomes clear that the multilateral regional processes between States in transition still require follow-up. The EU is well-placed to offer its support. First, now seems to be the time to revitalise the promotion of economic integration between countries in the region. In particular, the EU should grasp the opportunity to push forward the inclusion of a larger number of Arab States in the Agadir Agreement. Second, it can be judged positively that the EU deepened its relations with the Arab League and envisions further cooperation. At least partly, this was the result of the Arab League being able to profile itself in the many difficult dossiers of the MENA. The EU may want to study how the League’s expertise may be further wielded in other important unlocked geopolitical situations – think of the Middle East Peace Process and Iran.

Jan Wouters is Jean Monnet Chair ad personam EU and Global Governance, full Professor of International Law and International Organizations, and Director, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies – Institute for International Law, University of Leuven. Sanderijn Duquet is Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies – Institute for International Law, University of Leuven. They are the authors of the paper ‘The Arab Uprisings and the European Union: In Search of a Comprehensive Strategy’, which is published in the Yearbook of European Law.

The Yearbook of European Law seeks to promote the dissemination of ideas and provide a forum for legal discourse in the wider area of European law. It is committed to the highest academic standards and to providing informative and critical analysis of topical issues accessible to all those interested in legal studies. It reflects diverse theoretical approaches towards the study of law. The Yearbook published contributions in the following broad areas: the law of the European Union, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, related aspects of international law, and comparative laws of Europe.

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Image credit: Flag of the Arab League [public domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] Wouters and Sanderijn Duquet at the OUP blog take a comprehensive look at the EU’s attempts to strengthen relations with states in the Middle East and North Africa during the ‘Arab […]

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