The European Union and Democracy Promotion

Readjusting to the Arab Spring

Authored by: Tobias Schumacher

Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415523912
eBook ISBN: 9781315763026
Adobe ISBN: 9781317650041


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The outbreak in 2011 of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) impacted strongly on the European Union (EU) and its relations with the countries in this region. While the southern Mediterranean, due to its geographical proximity and its legacy of colonial rule, has always ranked quite highly on the EU’s foreign policy agenda, the recent upheavals in almost all Arab Mediterranean societies have ultimately made the southern neighbourhood the EU’s key foreign policy priority. For the first time ever, the EU felt compelled to explicitly call upon its longstanding authoritarian partners to respect the democratic aspirations of their peoples. For years it had systematically avoided such public announcements as a consequence of its close and rather complex relations with Arab Mediterranean rulers and its predominant obsession with short-term stability. The seemingly contagious spillover effect of Tunisia’s democratization into neighbouring societies, however, made the EU and the governments of its then 27 member states gradually aware that the ‘democracy promotion landscape’ (Burnell 2011: 4) in their southern neighbourhood was changing rapidly and they had to adjust to new actors and new dynamics. This lesson-drawing brought results at the European Commission (‘the Commission’ from here on) through its Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). For the first time in 18 years of institutionalized Euro-Mediterranean relations, it has engaged in an unprecedented display of self-criticism, acknowledging that the EU’s democracy promotion efforts in the southern Mediterranean had by and large failed (Füle 2011). Only some months later, in the wake of the first free and fair elections in Tunisia, yet a third novelty in Euro-Mediterranean relations presented itself. Confronted with the convincing victory of Tunisia’s Al-Nahdha Party in the parliamentary elections of October 2011, the Commission was now aware that ‘through democratic contests of power, Islamists, along with other democrats, are transforming the Arab Spring from an amorphous moral tumult to an institutionalised democratic process’ (Sadiki 2011). In most cases the EU abandoned its longstanding policy of non-engagement with Islamist actors, and acknowledged them as a legitimate political force and new political interlocutors (Ashton and Füle 2011a; Behr 2013).

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