While the vast oil reserves of the Arab world are more than ever the focus of Western attention, over the last few years the eastern neighborhood of the trans-Atlantic community has also gained in importance. European Union enlargement has redrawn the map of Europe, and as a result the EU is struggling to determine policies and instruments for stability and security in its east, a concern it shares with the United States. Although broader priorities face the US, among which Eastern Europe is just one, the EU focus is narrower and deeper, concerning internal functioning and development of the Union.
Careful of Russian interests, policies and instruments employed by the trans-Atlantic partners have remained modest, but more recently, consensus seems to be emerging that Eastern Europe deserves stronger Western engagement. On the European Union side, there is broadening acknowledgement that older policies have been insufficient, and adjustment of EU strategies has begun. Thus, the EU is rethinking its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), with several member states pressing for a stronger focus on Eastern Europe. Could this be at the expense of Arab countries?
Building on mutual commitment to democracy and human rights, rule of law, good governance, market economy principles and sustainable development, ENP goes beyond existing partnership models to offer a deeper political relationship and economic integration. The European Union developed ENP to avoid emergence of new dividing lines between the enlarged EU and its neighbors, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and in Eastern Europe alike. The Strategy Paper on the ENP published in 2004 sets out how the EU would work more closely with Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine.
The central elements of the ENP are the bilateral Action Plans agreed between the EU and each partner, which set out agendas of political and economic reform with short and medium-term priorities. Implementation of these plans — agreed to in 2005 with Israel, Jordan, Moldova, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Tunisia and Ukraine; in 2006 with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia; and in 2007 with Egypt and Lebanon — is underway. Algeria, having only recently ratified its Association Agreement with the EU, has chosen not to negotiate an Action Plan yet. Since the ENP builds upon existing agreements between the EU and individual partners (Partnership and Cooperation accords, or Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements), the ENP is not activated for Belarus, Libya, or Syria, with whom Association Agreements are not yet in force.
An interesting aspect of the ENP is that the majority of its members are actually Arab countries, and not Eastern European. However, there is an asymmetry in the Neighborhood Policy between the Arab world and Eastern Europe. In the latter, ENP can gradually advance reform and strengthen the case of neighboring countries to pursue eventual EU membership; for Arab countries, however, membership is at the very best a far distant prospect, and may actually not be an option at all. Thus, within the trans-Atlantic partnership, while the EU will have primary responsibility in shaping relationships with and developments in the eastern neighborhood, the US still seems to be paramount in the Arab world.
The EU and its eastern neighborhood are works in progress, but such is the drastic pace of global change that the boundaries of Europe may yet include peoples in MENA who are not currently “potential Europeans.” For the time being however, the EU’s focus on its eastern rim means that by default America may remain the dominant Western power in the Arab world, against the logic of geography and economics.
For the time being, ENP has yet to prove that it has a significant positive short-term effect on relations with the Arab world, and several EU member states are now pressing for a stronger focus of this policy on Eastern Europe. Regional frameworks, such as in the Black Sea area, may mark new relationships of the EU with its eastern neighborhood — by contrast, new EU policies involving Arab countries, such as the recently announced Union of the Mediterranean, look wobbly.
That concept, which began last year as the Mediterranean Union, an international forum grouping only states with a Mediterranean coastline and involving nine new agencies and a bank, now consists merely of a regular summit of EU and Mediterranean countries, a small secretariat, and a joint presidency. In practice, the Union for the Mediterranean may be little more than an upgrade of the Barcelona process and a political umbrella for the existing Euro-Med partnership, itself largely ineffective.
Riad al Khouri is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, and Senior Fellow of the William Davidson Institute, University of Michigan.