This past January, five years ago, Tunisians overthrew presidential dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, giving rise to the Arab Spring. The European Union (EU) tried to act as a normative actor, supporting the revolution’s democratic ideals. However, the EU’s continued support for authoritarian regimes clashes with its normative values. Furthermore, the complete lack of policy cohesion amongst its member states, due to national adherence, prevents the EU from being an effective actor in the area of foreign policy.
Through financial assistance, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) aimed to enhance the democratic transition of Arab Spring nations and tried to strengthen the EU’s image as a normative actor. Since the 1995 Barcelona Declaration, the EU has tried to implement its own democratic values in the Mediterranean region, positioning itself as a normative power— an actor that tries to impose its norms and values on another entity who, in other circumstances, would not adopt them. This has raised considerable criticism. Ian Manners, a political scientist whose research focuses on the EU and global governance, argues that the EU’s attempt to position itself in this way "cannot be anything other than the EU promoting its own norms in a similar manner to historical empire and contemporary powers." Understanding his critical approach of the institution is an important step in assessing where the EU’s policies fall short.
The EU repeatedly deals with and supports authoritarian regimes in the Middle East (such as Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia) because of two main factors: a desire to preserve stability within the region (which is perceived as essential to its economic interests) and fear that rapid political changes would bring Islamist organizations to power — as in the case of Egypt. Indeed, in the early 2000s, the liberalization process supported by the EU had a positive impact on political reforms in Egypt. Following the 2005 parliamentary election in which the Muslim Brotherhood gained a large number of seats, the EU stopped supporting the liberalization of the country as they did not agree with the party’s platform. The EU’s policy shift in Egypt highlights the contradictory nature of its normative values.
Jose Manuel Duraro Barroso, President of the European Commission, affirmed the EU’s support of non-democratic regimes in the region when he said in Cairo, that "in the past too many have traded democracy for stability." That could suggest a change in the EU relationship with authoritarian regimes and their normative goal to spread democracy. However, the new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-2019) does not appear to take any additional measures to ameliorate the current situation. The EU is a political actor that priorities its own interests. Europeans should therefore be skeptical of policies implemented on behalf of “human rights and democracy.”
The second factor that prevented the EU from supporting the Arab Spring nations in their democratic transition was its inability to present its policy in one coherent voice. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 was supposed to establish a policy-making structure geared towards the creation of a common foreign policy strategy. However, critics have suggested that instead, the Lisbon Treaty has institutionalized an inter-governmental decision-making process, especially in areas of foreign and defense policies. This has caused states to focus on national policies rather than created a united European voice.
An example of this is the management of the Libyan Crisis in 2011, the first foreign-security test for the Lisbon treaty. France, under Nicolas Sarkozy, submitted a request during the emergency summit in Brussels for a no-fly zone in Libya. Besides the responsibility-to-protect principles claimed by Western powers, the recent publication of emails received by Hillary Clinton shows that they were mainly frightened by Gaddafi’s project to establish a pan-African currency. This new currency would compete with the French franc (CFA) which is guaranteed by the French treasury. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused Sarkozy’s request and was supported by the majority of the EU’s member states. In an act of desperation, Sarkozy bypassed the EU’s decision and decided to pass his resolution through the UN, where the no-fly zone was adopted on the 17th of March, 2011. The chaotic situation in Libya, where extremist groups such as ISIL are currently taking advantage of the political uncertainty, shows how ill-advised and ineffective this decision was. France’s unilateral move demonstrated the competing visions within the EU and thus, the intergovernmental institution’s inability to develop a common response to crisis.
The Egyptian and Libyan examples are characteristic of the EU’s foreign policy failures. Before the EU can effectively support the growth of democracy elsewhere, it must first focus on cohesion among its own members. Instead of coming together to form a cohesive foreign policy, EU Member States keeps acting from an independent nation-state perspective. If individual EU nations are not ready to give up more national sovereignty, especially in the fields traditionally linked to the state — defense and foreign policy — the EU will not be able to become an influential actor in international affairs.