While the Arab League Slept: The EU and cooperation

By Rouba al-Fattal on September 9, 2010

There is no denying that the EU lacks a clear strategy when it comes to the Mediterranean in particular and the Arab world in general, as Abdullah Baabood posits. EU’s strategy has indeed oscillated over the past fifteen years between promoting free-trade and democracy multilaterally, to fostering bilateral cooperation with attached conditions, to lifting the conditionality all together and scraping the human rights and democracy questions off its wish-list in what can be described as a series of reactive policies in response to the oil crisis, EU’s own enlargement, and terrorism threats. It is also true that the EU’s policy towards the region was a factor in deepening divisions between the Mediterranean and the Gulf states, and that there is “much to gain by linking the EU’s various policy threads with different Arab countries”, even more in fostering a Euro-Arab agenda instead of the exclusive and divisive EU-Mediterranean vision. 

That said, however, there is too much attention being paid to the divisions dogging the Arab League (AL), while little has been said on the EU’s own elusive concept of common foreign policy. The fact that both institutions are hampered by their own internal fragmentations, does not work in favour of a comprehensive and effective EU-AL common actions. On the contrary, the lack of homogeneity in their composition is often to blame for their political-paralysis. An EU with 27 members and an Arab League with 22 members – all with distinct history, cultures, interests, and resources - are hardly the cohesive entities that one would expect much consensual policies from. 

The problem is not simply that “Europe’s attempts to forge a strategic partnership with the Arab world have been mismanaged and under resourced” – although the mismanagement and shortage of resources may be true – but that there is a lack of effective balancing of resources, which stand to be ill-defined. In such a complex setting as the EU and the Arab League, an understanding of which resources to employ and to what extent is paramount before the two can embark on any tangible cooperation. Both need to sort out their own legal frameworks (multilateral and bilateral agreements, action plans, voting and decision-making procedures); capabilities (financial and military resources); and instruments (carrots and sticks, sanctions, cultural diplomacy, democracy promotion). With all the resources and efficiency possible if both institutions do not figure out how to balance their resources and communicate it to the other, there is nothing much EU’s funding and organisation alone can do. 

Undoubtedly, the Arab League can provide a framework for interregional cooperation, but there have been opportunities missed that one needs to examine retrospectively in order to draw lessens from them for the future. For instance, the Arab League could have done more to be taken onboard at the launch of the Barcelona process in 1995. The League has been known to take common (as opposed to collective) decisions between few members while excluding those who do not want to take part, which could have solved their deadlock on the Iraq issue. It could have also objected to the bilateral nature of the European Neighbourhood policy (ENP) in 2004, and insisted instead on expanding the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) multilateral track to include an EU-AL parallel track. Nonetheless, it is never too late to deepen and widen the scope of collaboration between Europe and the Arab world. 

But like the EU, the Arab League is also riddled by indecision and divisions. Even the Arab Peace Initiative – endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 – was signed only by a handful of Arab countries that were present, yet was opposed by factions in both the Arab and Israeli camps; until it was picked up again and signed by almost all Arab League states (except for Libya) in 2007. But now is the time for the Arab League to voice its intent to be more present in EU-Arab relations. We have already seen signs of their new resolve in their insistence to take part in the new Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) setting. Nowadays, the Arab League enjoys an observer status in this multilateral, project focused, group though without voting rights. Unfortunately, we have not seen what the Arab League in the framework of the UfM can bring to the table, as summits have been indefinitely postponed due to the political tension between the Israeli government and Egypt, which is the Arab country supposedly co-chairing these summits for the first two years.

Be that as it may, even if summits were to take place there is no guarantee that the Mediterranean Union and the Arab League will be effective, due to the fact that there are more than 46 partners involved (27 EU, 16 Mediterranean, Libya as observer, in addition to the other Arab League states). Based on the sheer numbers and the EU’s attitude of “benign neglect” - or in other words ‘if it is not broken why fix it’ motto - this is a recipe destined for failure. However, the EU alone cannot be blamed. Arab states and their societies bare some of the responsibility as well. The Arab world needs to stop looking for a solution from above, and they need to find one in an interrelation fashion among themselves and with the help of their own societies, which sadly have been marginalised long enough. In fact, the obstacle facing signing agreements between the EU and the Arab world (particularly the Gulf states) is not simply the lack of political-will, as much as the question of which conditions should be attached to these agreements. Should there be human rights and democracy clauses, which would then bring the process to a halt; or should it continue with the UfM method of cooperating on depoliticised projects, starting with the economy and hoping for a gradual spill-over effect to other areas (as was the case in EU’s own integration). 

Of course adding the Israeli factor into this complex matrix does not help, since Israel still lacks the sort of agreements necessary to have in order to advance those projects with its Arab neighbours. Hence, again we find ourselves back to square one. Solve the Israeli-Arab (not only the Palestinian) conflict first and then we can work on joint projects, Free Trade Agreements, and intercultural diplomacy. While the conflict is ongoing, cooperation rhetoric will have difficulty extending beyond the negotiation tables or fancy summits. To do so the EU and more importantly the US need to exert real pressure on all the parties – if they can or are willing to do so. But to fault the EU of weakening the Arab League and from there to generalise that “it has had a negative impact resulting in wars and even the failing of member states like Somalia and to some extent Yemen” is giving the EU more power than it actually possesses. 

Instead of bemoaning the EU’s failure to help the Arab world, and blaming it for Arab states’ malfunctions, we need to evaluate what the Arab world did to boost its democracy, good-governance and human rights. There is still much resistance among those governments to reform. Thus, when the EU interferes it is often accused of imposing its standards and values on other states, but when it does not, it is accused of not doing enough. At this point both the Arab League and the EU ought to start outlining their definition of these concepts, and where they draw the line of EU’s involvement. If that does not happen, EU-Arab relations may continue to suffer from expectations gaps that will render their cooperation declaratory at best for a while to come.


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