A changing Mediterranean: redefining agendas, fostering cooperation between frameworks and actors – Conference report 1

Conference Report: Javier Albarracín, IEMed, 12-14 september 2013

By Théodore Abitbol, M1 AlterEurope, majeure science politique.

The fact that the world order dividing North and South is changing has not gone unnoticed; slow shifts in power are taking place everywhere in the World across continents. The Mediterranean is at the crossing of international commerce and a region endowed with energy-related resources. More importantly, it is an interface between the European Union and North Africa. The 2010s seem to be a defining moment for not only the South, but also the North of the region. Both the Euro crisis and the Arab Spring can tell us something about the urgent need for “redefining agendas and fostering cooperation between frameworks and actors”.The inaugural lecture series of Javier Albaraccin, director of the Socioeconomic Section of the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMED), centered on the idea that relations between the North and the South are changing at a hectic pace, implying that the EU must keep up with these in order to stay relevant in the region.

A quick review of the diplomatic history between the European Union and the Mediterranean allows us to better grasp what has been done in order to advance Europe’s interest in the region. What emerges from this analysis is that the EU’s actions are time-consuming and have serious political ramifications for the region in that they are mostly opposed to regime objectives. In 2008, the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) challenged these methods, since none of the homeopathic, incentive and conditional approaches worked. A new, concrete and project-based approach was, therefore, adopted. But in 2010 started what western media have named the “Arab Spring”.

The wave of the revolutions, protests and riots that shook the Arab World forced the EU to rethink its policies because behind the political sparks (such as immolation and corruption) that threw people into the streets, there were underlying deep socio-economic reasons. Notable among these were the infringement of individual rights and chronic unemployment. The surprise that emanates from these events brought to the fore the fact that there existed a mismatch between the booming population and growing expectation for improved standard of living at one hand and the social interventions which authoritarian governments were offering at the other extreme.

The response of the EU to these unstable tendencies was at first indecisive and divided, which degraded its image.  As the news of the extent of the crises became unavoidable, however, few initiatives were developed. One of these was the “more for more” approach, albeit this was not fundamentally different from that which was based on conditionality.

Undeniably, citizens’ urgent needs are to be fulfilled by every new regime otherwise it will end up the same as its predecessors, overthrown by the masses. While the EU decides how to respond to the instability that has engulfed the region, these young political systems must offer concrete solutions to the bottlenecks that confront their citizens. Even if there is no handbook for transition, a few issues are worth considering. Firstly, economic reforms are a priority since they must aim to create an inclusive socio-economic growth. In a suffocating regional and global economic climate, however, this could prove very daunting for a young regime. Democratized reforms such as elections, parliaments, political parties and workers unions are also fundamental to ensure the smooth implementation of the social contract between government and the citizenry. In this light, nearly every aspect of governance should be changed for these countries to grow. Sequencing will be the most ideal approach, since all tasks cannot be completed at the same time. This will, nevertheless, be challenging particularly in the financial and public administration sectors, where high expertise is required. The EU can play an integral role in this direction through technical support and institutional building.

The endless streams of reforms and the conflicts that they provoke are very detrimental to the smooth functioning of the local government system. The slow reaction of the EU has been underlined by the swiftness of other actors to gain control of the region through increased financial commitments. Turkey, China and the Gulf countries are already investing heavily in the Mediterranean region and are not withheld by moral imperatives. Turkey, an emerging   regional leader and a global power, is also a role model for many of the transition countries even though it cannot provide any blueprint for success given the singularity of each country. The Gulf countries, while having their own political agendas, are now the biggest investor in the few MENA countries that have been touched by conflicts in recent years.China has always sustained a good diplomatic relation with many African countries and has been investing heavily for some time, although some experts point out that its attitude is tantamount to neocolonialism. All these “new” external actors (in the sense that they defile the EU-reserved idea of the MENA countries) are actively playing their own game, complicating exponentially the political and economic interactions in a region that is already grappling with the rise of new internal actors such as youth, women and democratically elected Islamist parties.