Whither partnership? Reflecting on the EU’s response to the Arab uprising

By Tressia Hobeika

The ‘Arab street’, a once-upon-a-time irrational space for ‘riffraff’, has taken on a new lease of life in the wake of the recent uprisings in the EU’s southern neighbourhood. ‘Belonging to the street’ – a hitherto pejorative expression in colloquial Arabic – has come to be assigned to a panoply of new local actors, including organised civil society, whether in the form of associations or political parties.

A new offer on the table

Under this new sky, and “respecting the democratic choice” of this same revitalised Arab street and its confluence of local newcomers, the EU has ultimately set to revamp its relations with its purlieus. It would accordingly lend its support to the uprisings on the basis of the ‘more for more’ and ‘mutual accountability’ principles, as enshrined in its communications: Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity and New Response to a changing neighbourhood. Combining the two, could a new partnership be on its way? What is a partnership anyway?

A rather woolly concept like many others in the EU jargon (democracy, rule of law…), the threads of partnership were finely unpicked as “one of these nice feely words beloved by politicians” (Boateng, 1999). In a more pragmatic attempt at defining this slippery concept, a partnership was found to be a “programme that has [inter alia] a high level of commitment, mutual trust [and] equal ownership” (Stern and Green, 2005). How does the EU espouse its new partnership in these new-fangled Arab streets?

A Janus-faced partnership

Partnership is not a new variable in the Euro-Mediterranean equation.

The 1995 Euro-Mediterranean Partnership came to the fore in a pivotal Huntingtonian context of conflicting views on Mediterranean security. The “Clash of Civilisations” security thesis would therefore be counterweighed with a three-basket cooperation with the objective of establishing a free trade zone in the Mediterranean.

In 2011, the Arab street’s convulsion would soon become another turning point in the EU-Mediterranean relations, therefore paving the ground towards another new partnership. Any signs of commitment, mutual trust and equal ownership?

According to the ‘more for more’ principle, the EU’s commitment would only carry punch if its to-be-partners fulfil the “qualifications for the partnership”: free and fair elections, freedom of association, rule of law, fight against corruption and reform of security and law enforcement. In other words, pouring in more money is conditioned upon a compliance to the implementation of prescriptions from abroad. And the EU’s communications are crystal clear about it: the EU would “reconsider support when countries depart from this track”. However, what track is the right one? And who fixes the benchmarks for such departure? Southern Mediterranean civil society has so far been critical of the patronising EU conditionality, especially when the criteria for both benchmarks and progress assessments have not been negotiated.

As for mutual trust, although quite present in rhetoric, mutual distrust has so far been the order of the day. The Arab street has lost trust in the EU, due to its past with authoritarian regimes whereas the EU still hesitantly contemplates the burgeoning Islamic parties and political Islam.

Equal ownership, closely linked to the communications’ call for ‘mutual accountability’, has also been questioned by the confluence of local actors on the Arab streets. The concepts of ‘equality’ or ‘mutuality’ have particularly raised some question marks. How can they hold their northern neighbour accountable for its hesitant common foreign and security policy, such as its lack of a single voice on the Palestinian UN membership? Can they, in fact, hold it accountable for anything at all?

The Arab street did renew. How about its northern neighbour? It is high time that the EU turns its ‘ring of friends’ into a genuine ‘ring of partners’.

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