The recent upheavals in North Africa have clearly exposed that the European Union has lost its standing as a major international political player.
This is obviously no surprise, as Europe, despite all its claims to be a global power, has been too busy fighting internal problems in the past decade. Climate change was the last global project where Europe attempted to play a key role, but it quickly lost the lead to the United States and large emerging economies. No one now expects Europe to seriously influence global affairs.
However, North Africa is not an abstract international project but a direct neighbor to the EU, to which it has been connected via historical, cultural, economic, energy, political and human ties.
France, which has always set the political tune in the EU, still believes itself to be North Africa’s patron, especially its French-speaking countries.
For Britain, the Middle East and North Africa bring back recent memories of its imperial might and it has retained interest in the region. It is no coincidence that former Prime Minister Tony Blair worked his knuckles to the bone to become the special envoy of the Madrid Quartet on the Middle East.
The situation in the region also worries Spain, which is located only a few miles from Morocco, as well as Portugal, Italy and Greece, where immigrants from the neighboring southern countries are flocking. In fact, there are large Middle Eastern and North African communities in the majority of West European countries, while EU members Malta and Cyprus are de facto inside the Middle East region.
This is why the EU has been trying to strengthen its influence in the Mediterranean and North Africa. As integration increased in the 1990s, highlighting the need for a common foreign policy, the EU started focusing on projects involving neighboring countries, such as Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (or Barcelona Process), New Neighborhood and Greater Europe. And lastly, it proposed the European Neighborhood Policy, which included vastly different countries, from Morocco and Mauritania to Moldova and Georgia.
It soon became clear, however, that uniting such different countries is a bad idea, so Europe proposed an Eastern Partnership for the post-Soviet republics and the Union for the Mediterranean. French President Nicolas Sarkozy fiercely advocated the latter idea in the hope that it would strengthen his country’s leading positions in the region and in the EU as a whole. He also expected Germany to finance the project, until Chancellor Angela Merkel cut his appetite down to size.
Anyway, although the EU’s effectiveness in other parts of the world could be questioned, it thought it had no rivals along its perimeter.
However, Jordan’s Ahmad Khalaf Masa’deh, the first Secretary General of the Union of the Mediterranean, resigned a week ago. He made no high-profile statements, but few doubt that he was disappointed with the inefficiency of the union that was established to promote “stability and prosperity” in the region.
While tensions were growing in Tunisia and Egypt in the past few weeks, the EU leaders and the heads of its major countries did nothing to formulate a clear-cut stand. It turned out that they did not expect these events to occur, and did not wake up to reality even when the world started speaking about the “Tunisian spark” and “Tunisia’s domino effect.”
Europe had no emergency plan for such a situation, and proposals to send a crisis mission to Tunisia or Egypt have been deadlocked by inability to determine the mission’s format, mandate, level and other technical details. Statements by European politicians, including Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign minister, have not influenced the events in any way, because it is clear to everyone that the EU has neither a common stand nor understanding of its interests or the most desirable outcomes.
The current chaos is only the beginning of the imminent big problems due to the region’s “rezoning.” The great powers that want to retain their influence must quickly draft new strategies. No matter who replaces the departing older politicians, Europe’s leading countries will have to develop relations with the new leaders of their strategic neighbors, which is nearly all countries of the region. At the same time, new players, first and foremost Iran and Turkey, will strengthen their involvement.
The events taking place south of Europe are highly important for the major EU countries, primarily France, Spain, Italy and Britain, which have close demographic and energy ties with the region. However, the EU is unlikely to form a coordinated policy, which means that its member countries will have to uphold their interests single-handed.
The recent example of such behavior is the U.S. decision to “forgive” Libya several years ago, after which the major EU countries hurried to shake hands with Colonel Gaddafi, whom they had previously avoided.
This will further undermine the foundations of the EU’s political unity. Standing alone, no EU country is as strong as the United States or China. As for using the traditional EU tool – economic aid – its possibilities are also limited, because the Eurozone’s cache of free money has been depleted by economic problems.
Luckily, the EU can demonstrate its unity by standing up against the hated Belarusian dictatorship. But unlike the United States, which has approved economic sanctions against Belarus, the EU has so far limited itself to strong rhetoric and symbolic gestures. This is understandable, as curtailing relations with Belarus could damage European interests. And interests are, ultimately, more important than principles.
Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.