Europe Starts to Get Serious About its Neighbors

By Alina Inayeh
Thursday, 26 May 2011

BUCHAREST — Nearly four months after a young Tunisian fruit seller burned himself alive out of despair over the corruption of his country and sparked a popular revolt against autocracy that swept the region, thunderstruck leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are finding their voice again. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a major speech that compared the uprisings with America’s civil rights movement. This week, it was Europe’s turn to answer the call from Northern Africa and the Middle East. By European standards of deliberation, the European Union’s response was atypically timely.

On Wednesday, Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, and Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy,  released a joint policy paper called, in characteristically dry EU-speak, “A New Response to a Changing Neighborhood.” Technically, this document is the result of a routine review of the EU’s existing neighborhood policy, and was scheduled long before the Arab upheavals. But as events unfolded, it became clear that Europe’s response could no longer be routine. So the advance word was that this would be a bold reaction to the dramatic changes in what remains a very dynamic neighborhood.

But the paper published on Tuesday falls somewhat short of a genuinely bold vision. It does not go so far as to sketch out a desired democratic end state for the nations of the region. That kind of clarity might have made relations with some countries easier. Still, by European standards, it’s a courageous document. Most importantly, it rectifies the chief flaw of the earlier policy by introducing genuine conditionality; it seeks to encourage democratic reforms by offering the carrot of economic support–and threatening to withdraw it in case of backsliding. This in itself is a remarkable affirmation of European principles and values. Civic and opposition party leaders had asked for it in vain for years, and watched in frustration as the EU gave funds to regimes that paid no more than lip service to reform, if that.

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