The EU and Arab reform

The EU and Arab reform

Charles Grant , Tomas Valsek
27 April 2007

The EU and Arab reform

by Charles Grant and Tomas Valasek

The Arab Reform Initiative held its annual conference in Amman, Jordan, on 18th April. Founded in 2005, ARI is a consortium of a dozen research centres that advocate peaceful and gradual political, economic and social reform in the region. A few non-Arab think-tanks are also involved, including the Centre for European Reform, but it is very much led and managed by Arab research centres (the CER’s own website has a page on the ARI see The CER is part of ARI because it believes that ARI offers an excellent opportunity to encourage reform in a region that is deeply suspicious of outside influence.

The mood among the Arab think-tankers in Amman was relatively bleak. Prince Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia set the tone. The prince is known for being both strongly pro-reform and somewhat sceptical of the United States, despite having served as ambassador in Washington until recently. However, as he said, US influence is increasingly corrosive of the very cause of reform in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq – which the prince described as ‘illegitimate’ – had been particularly damaging. The message that Arab reformers took from the conflict and its aftermath was that solutions devised outside the region would not work, and that they must distance themselves from Washington if they are to have credibility with their own people.

The second blow for reformers was the West’s reaction to the 2006 elections in Palestine that brought Hamas to power. Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian researcher, noted that the refusal by Washington to engage a legitimately elected Hamas government sent a terrible message, showing contempt for free and fair elections. In doing so Washington had sided with the entrenched authoritarian elite in Fatah, which had been discredited in the eyes of many Palestinians. And by throwing its support behind President Abbas and strengthening his office at the expense of the Prime Minister, even directly funding the presidential guard, Washington had undermined the Palestinian constitution. Not surprisingly, concluded Khalil Shaliki, support for democracy among the Palestinians had dropped after the events of the last year.

There is no doubt an argument to be made that without a heavy US intervention in the form of the Afganistan and Iraq wars reforms may never have become as prominent an issue as they are today. By jumpstarting the movement even at the expense of damage to its popularity, Washington may already have accomplished its most important goal in the region. This will be a question for historians to resolve. For the time being, US influence on Arab governments and societies seems at an all-time low. Reforms must indeed come principally from within, from the relevant governments and initiatives such as ARI. Nevertheless, one outside body, the European Union, can play a legitimate supporting role. In fact there is probably no greater challenge for Europe than getting its relationship with the Muslim world right. Because of the intertwined nature of European and Middle Eastern societies, Europeans have more direct interest than Americans in wanting to encourage reform in the Arab world.

The EU does have its ‘Barcelona process’, through which it tries to promote closer political and economic ties with the Mediterranean states. But though this process has soaked up billions of euros of EU money, nobody seems to think that it has achieved a great deal. One problem has been the reluctance of the governments in the region to accept the concept of conditionality – the idea that they should only get trade and aid if they behave in certain ways – and the reluctance of EU governments to apply that principle.

The EU also has its ‘neighbourhood policy’, which now applies to several Arab countries. The EU has agreed ‘action plans’ with Jordan, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Tunisia and Egypt. The EU promises closer relations with the countries concerned in return for their fulfilling promises to reform. The neighbourhood policy includes the concept of ‘positive conditionality’, rewarding good performers with extra funds, which may be easier to apply politically than old-fashioned negative conditionality. Jordan has been a star pupil and thus won extra EU funds in 2006.

The Barcelona process and the neighbourhood policy have undoubtedly done some good in some ways. But ultimately what affects Arab views of the EU is its performance on the Middle East peace process. And to judge from the mood in Amman, most Arab intellectuals have a poor view of the EU’s role. Last summer, when Israel invaded Lebanon, the EU’s initial inability to condemn the act as ‘disproportionate’ – because of the reluctance of the UK and some others to break from the US line – was noted with contempt. More recently, the EU’s divisions over whether to talk to Syria and Hamas have not impressed Arab think-tanks.

Indeed, Bassma Kodmani, the feisty lady who runs the ARI, remarked that the EU’s efforts to forge a common foreign policy were benefiting no one. The European insistence on unity meant that the EU could not engage with Hamas – though the Swiss and the Norwegians were doing so. She said it would be much better for those EU countries that were willing and able to engage with Hamas to do so on their own.

Such frustration with the slowness of EU decision-making is understandable. But in fact Arab think-tanks should not oppose the EU’s efforts to forge a common line. When it does pursue such a line, as it has done on Iran, it can make a difference and influence the behaviour of others. A united EU has more potential to shift the policy of Israel or the US than half a dozen EU states forming a sub-group of their own.

Many Arab think-tankers now seem to think that the EU is no better than the US. Indeed they cite the example of the EU’s diplomacy over Iran as an example of its ‘doing the US’s bidding’. Although many Arab governments are suspicious of Iran’s nuclear plans, Arab researchers criticise the EU’s diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran developing a nuclear bomb. Iranian President Ahmedi-Nejad has become a popular figure in many Arab countries, on account of his standing up to the West. At the ARI conference, when a CER panellist defended the EU’s Iranian diplomacy, pointing out that it was not only the ‘West’, but also Russia, India, China, Mohammed el-Baradei and the UNSC who were trying to persuade Iran not to build a bomb, Prince Turki nodded in approval. But nobody else did.

The EU faces few more difficult tasks than balancing its interest in continued close transatlantic relations with a stronger European role in the Middle East.

Charles Grant is director and Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy & defence at the Centre for European Reform.