The EU Will Pay Dearly for Its Neglect of North Africa

In the fall of 2012, as Syria plunged into civil war and the Eurozone crisis generated panic across global markets, a parliamentary election in Ukraine signaled trouble ahead to those who were paying attention. The results that trickled out on Oct. 28, 2012, indicated that then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions had secured a strong position through dubious constitutional maneuvers and ballot manipulation.

In the aftermath of the elections, Yanukovych’s corrupt and Russia-friendly clique tried to bend Ukraine to their whims. The simmering discontent among large parts of the population over Yanukovych’s power grab was the first escalation in political battles that ultimately led to the Maidan uprising less than 15 months later. By the summer of 2013, a widespread sentiment had taken hold among Ukrainians that closer integration with the European Union was a final chance to prevent Yanukovych from taking Ukraine down Russia’s path of venal authoritarianism. Yet even as Russian President Vladimir Putin did everything to obstruct Ukraine’s path to closer ties with the West, many EU leaders seemed oblivious to how fast things were approaching a crucial inflection point in Moscow and Kyiv.

Eight years after EU leaders watched in shock as Yanukovych fled a popular uprising and the Putin regime ordered the first invasions of Ukraine, a political crisis in Tunisia and deepening structural problems throughout the rest of North Africa show that the EU still seems unable to focus on more than one strategic challenge at a time. While the Russo-Ukrainian war has shaken Europe to its core, the survival of Tunisia’s democratic experiment along with peace and prosperity in Algeria, Libya and Morocco are of equal strategic importance to the EU. Its cumbersome response to the past decade of social upheaval in North Africa echoes the strategic miscalculations in the 1990s and 2000s that left EU institutions ill-prepared for the breakdown in relations between Russia and Ukraine.

The EU’s struggle to respond to the recent collapse of Tunisian democracy is a case in point. In ways that echo Yanukovych’s hijacking of the Ukrainian state a decade ago, on July 25, 2021, President Kais Saied declared a state of emergency, suspending parliament and shutting down political life in the one country where democracy had taken hold after the Arab Uprisings. In the months that followed, he moved to squeeze parliamentary parties, initially focusing on the soft Islamist Ennahda movement before moving on to pressuring other parts of the political spectrum. Since then, Saied has moved to restore the kind of authoritarian rule that Tunisia suffered under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali prior to the 2011 revolution. In the past three months alone, he has shut down the Supreme Judicial Council, seized control of the election commission and dissolved parliament in contravention of a constitution that in his previous career as a law professor he had sworn to defend.

Drawing on the support of many Tunisians frustrated with corruption and political paralysis, Saied’s power grab also opened up space for parts of the police and security services to reintroduce the repressive abuses that the revolution was supposed to relegate to the past. Despite Saied’s political decisiveness, however, his inner circle has proven unable to develop a coherent response to Tunisia’s growing economic crisis, at a time when the risk of state bankruptcy and collapse of whole business sectors could disrupt food imports. Even as trade unions and secular civil society groups hostile to Ennahda begin to rethink their tacit support for Saied, each step of his creeping coup increases the likelihood of Tunisia’s destabilization, particularly if economic crisis and incompetent governance lead to a further loss of support for Saied’s political project.

The EU’s failure of strategic imagination along its southern border is helping to entrench dangerous structural trends in North Africa that will affect it as much as the challenges it now faces on its eastern border.

Though many economic, political and geopolitical factors have converged to bring about such a disastrous outcome in Tunisia, the collapse of a democratic project that once started with so much hope in 2011 also represents a fundamental failure of EU strategy on a par with any of its blunders toward Russia and Ukraine before 2014. The revolution that swept away Ben Ali on Jan. 14, 2011, represented a huge opportunity not just for Tunisia, but for the cause of democratization in North Africa as a whole. As reform movements, mass protests and armed uprisings against authoritarian regimes failed in the rest of the Arab world, the survival of democracy in Tunisia sustained hopes that the doom loop of dictatorships followed by violent upheaval could be broken. As a country located at a strategically key point along Europe’s Mediterranean borders, Tunisia is also a crucial partner for the EU when it comes to trade, maritime security and migration.

The often slow and process-obsessed approach taken by the EU toward change in Tunisia represented a failure of will and strategic imagination toward a neighboring state of vital importance to the security of Europe. Though the EU did provide financial support and initiated negotiations for the kind of agreements it has signed with Ukraine, these processes were often marred by a glacial pace and petty bickering that reflected the EU’s tendency to ride roughshod over issues that are hugely sensitive for its interlocutors. The EU’s approach was also marred by key member states, particularly France and Italy, often falling back into old neocolonial habits in their dealings in the region.

These tendencies were made worse by Germany’s reluctance to take the lead in North Africa, largely because of the lack of willingness by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to prod Rome or Paris over issues that Berlin seemed to view as less crucial to German interests. Most disastrously, the paranoia over migration that reflects a streak of crude racism in much European political debate prevented EU institutions from making the same offer of visa-free travel access to Tunisians that it made to Ukrainians as part of a wider effort to encourage economic and political reform.

This reluctance among many in EU institutions and governments to treat Tunisians with the respect they deserved meant that Brussels’ plodding attempts to encourage reform struggled to compete with the agendas of other external actors—such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—that were and remain hostile to any form of political reform, particularly if it involves Islamist parties. The kind of miserly haggling the EU employed with Tunisia, which would have been all too familiar to Ukrainians before 2014, meant that it struggled to foster economic prosperity and political change that could have provided incentives for Tunisian elites and the wider population to protect the rule of law. Instead, the EU now finds itself paralyzed with indecision, as meddling from authoritarian states and the economic frustration of Tunisian voters fed up with a corrupt political class opened space for an authoritarian restoration under a president convinced that only he can fix the country’s problems.

More broadly, the EU’s failures in Tunisia are a product of the dysfunctional nature of its Southern Neighborhood Policy. A similar lack of engagement with the Hirak mass protests in Algeria in 2019 ultimately left civil society leaders there even more exposed to the pressures of an incompetent ruling elite. In Libya, the way in which many European governments lost interest in the country’s rapidly unraveling postwar order after 2011—leaving France and Italy to pursue completely contradictory strategies toward the civil war fueled by Russian, Turkish and UAE meddling—has to go down as the Southern Neighborhood Policy’s most scandalous failure. And in Morocco, the EU has long ignored the institutionalized corruption around King Mohammed VI’s court, which does so much to hobble economic and political life in the country and fuels the societal dysfunction and mass migration that the EU’s border policies obsessively try to contain.

The EU’s failure of strategic imagination along its southern border is helping to entrench dangerous structural trends that will affect it as much as the challenges it now faces on its eastern border. Over 80 years ago, the historian Fernand Braudel pointed out that the Mediterranean is not so much a barrier as a shared cultural space creating deep links between every society along its shores. Through its punitive border regime and a diplomatic approach tinged with the neocolonial outlook of its member states, the EU is ignoring this millennia-old reality in ways that it will almost certainly come to regret.

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