Since June of last year, the European Union has been touting its new reform plan for its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which calls for a complete revamping of the Union’s political and economic relations with the ‘Southern Mediterranean’ countries, most notably North Africa. Among the central tenets of the new ENP is the “more for more” approach, which stipulates greater rewards in economic assistance and EU market access for partner countries in exchange for substantive and far-reaching political reforms. While at first this seems to be a welcome change in rhetoric, and hopefully policy, from the EU, questions remain as to whether this really represents a true policy shift that will help strengthen reform and democratization in North Africa, or if such an approach will simply perpetuate a cycle of mismanaged EU-North Africa relations.
One of the glaring failures of the pre-Arab Spring ENP is that despite democratization rhetoric, the policy was largely aimed at promoting stability and the status quo. The Neighborhood Policy itself was borne out of the European Security Strategy, and was initially intended to build a ‘ring of friends’ around Europe. Over the years, rather than promoting democratic governance, the ENP simply reinforced “firm” governance. Part of the failure of the ENP to illicit democratization in countries like Morocco or Tunisia stemmed from miscalculations over incentives. What the EU was willing to offer the countries of the Maghreb in terms of economic cooperation was not sufficient to move these regimes to make any real changes to their government structure or practices. However, an equally important part of the ENP’s failure also stems from the EU’s rush to offer the Moroccan and Tunisian governments “Advanced Status” negotiating terms despite little to no progress on the reform front, thus removing remaining incentives for change. On the whole, for the pre-Arab Spring era, it would appear that the EU greatly overestimated its influence and miscalculated its way into insignificance.
While Tunisia is in the process of a real, if not completely smooth, transition, Morocco’s progress on reforms remains in flux. The EU recently concluded an agricultural trade deal with Morocco, allowing it access to the EU market. This is the trade agreement that Morocco has been desperately pursuing for years to little avail. The deal came on the heels of a Constitutional referendum, changes to the enumerated powers of the Prime Minister, and a parliamentary election where the Islamist PJD won a majority, a first in a country where Islamists have been routinely imprisoned for political activity. On the surface it would seem like the ‘more for more’ approach is working; substantive political reforms for greater economic benefits from the EU. Yet, Morocco’s reforms over the last year aren’t nearly as substantive as they appear to be.
The King still has de-facto full executive power, leaving the Prime Minister extremely weak, with a newly begun judicial reform process still dependent on the King’s executive privilege. The constitutional reforms have come under scrutiny for the differences between the French and Arabic versions of the texts regarding the King’s title of “Commander of the Faithful,” meaning that it remains a crime to publicly criticize the monarchy or the state, and any of its institutions. Mouad Belghouat, a 19 year old Moroccan rapper, better known as El Haqed (“the enraged”), knows this well. He now sits in jail for a protest song “Dogs of the State,” where he blasted the country’s National Security Agency for its corruption and political oppression in subservience to the monarchy. His defense team at his trial was not allowed to make a closing statement. Additionally, the makhzen, or royal court, continues to maintain its grip over Morocco’s ‘private sector’ further enriching itself and the monarchy at the economic expense of ordinary Moroccans. This hardly resembles the rosy facade of Morocco as, “a model for the region,” painted by European officials.
Additional concerns are now emerging over Algeria, with its recent election where the ruling party consolidated its hold on power and increased its share of seats in parliament. Unlike Morocco, Algeria has an Association Agreement with the EU but not an Action Plan (AP). Algeria expressed interest in beginning AP negotiations with EU in December 2011 and subsequently invited EU election observers to monitor the May legislative elections. Beyond this, Algerian progress on reforms has been perfunctory. Protests in the capital, Algiers, remain banned. Although the government lifted the emergency law on the rest of the country, Amnesty International notes that protests still require authorization from the government which is routinely denied, amounting to a de facto ban on demonstrations. Most recently, Algerian artists and intellectual launched a petition calling for true freedom of expression in the country. The signatories heavily criticized the Ministry of Culture’s stranglehold over artistic expression citing its tendency to threaten and intimidate anyone who does not follow its strict directives and rules regarding cultural expression.
The goal of the Algerian government, based simply on the public rhetoric of its officials, has been to stave off the possibility of large-scale protest movements that would fundamentally challenge the government’s ruling authority. The government has been fairly successful in preventing a Tunisia/Egypt/ Libya style revolt and even a Moroccan style youth protest movement. Since it is relatively clear what the government’s intentions are and have been since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the recent election looks more like electoral theater aimed at placating European and Western criticism than substantive reform. EU electoral monitors and high officials have already declared the election a success and are ready to offer Algeria the Action Plan it desires.
The prospect of EU officials being naively unaware that these non-democratic governments are attempting to finesse favorable outcomes within the ENP at low political cost to themselves seems rather unlikely. Behind the laudatory press releases and friendly diplomatic statements, EU diplomatic staff and Brussels bureaucrats must surely be aware of the blatant shortcomings of these countries’ respective reform processes. Rather, the rush to provide rewards to these regimes for largely cosmetic reforms results from the belief that the EU can lure these governments into more genuine reforms if it can convince them it is offering the new ‘more for more’ approach in good faith. While the EU has rightly calculated that it does indeed need to offer more, it has yet to recalibrate its tendency to offer too much too soon. That Morocco has now achieved its long stated goal of an agricultural deal means that the EU has relatively little left to offer that is so highly desired by the government as to elicit further democratic reforms at a level and pace suitable to European sensibilities. This leaves little optimism that as negotiations with Algeria begin, a new EU-Algeria Action Plan won’t look and feel dismally similar to previous sets of ENP Action Plans that failed to induce democratization and political reform.