The Arab Spring and the EU

More divisive than ever, the EU needs a common foreign policy in order to prevent revolting countries from becoming either fundamentalist, autocratic - or in some cases, China-bait.

European Union leaders Sarkozy, Merkel 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Thierry Roge)
European Union leaders Sarkozy, Merkel 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thierry Roge)
While North Africa and the Middle East are walking a tightrope between revolution and counterrevolution, the European Union appears to be missing yet another appointment with history in the tortuous path to political unity.
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At the forefront of a multilateral military operation tackling Muammar Gaddafi’s counteroffensive against the National Transitional Council, France and the UK seem to have carved out a proactive role in the Libyan crisis. However, in light of the broader picture of popular revolts raging from Morocco to Egypt and Yemen to Bahrain, the European Union as a whole is demonstrating divisive policies and acute disunity.
The multifarious strategic implications of the revolt-age necessitate the EU to provide a consolidated response, and yet its member states seem to be doing the exact opposite.
When the so-called Jasmine Revolutions broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, an internal dispute also broke out within the EU. The Union’s northern members rejected a proposal from its southern ones to devise a common and coordinated policy about migrants on the run from the restive Maghreb and Mashreq regions.
Only last year the traditional European axis of Germany and France joined forces to devise a plan aimed at rescuing the European common currency in the face of the continent’s ongoing sovereign debt crisis. Yet the ties between the two countries are not across the board, as demonstrated by Germany’s opposition to France and the UK’s efforts in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya under the UN Security Council’s mandate. Concerned with the potential fallout (not least of all, the inevitable flow of migrants), Mediterranean EU states like Italy, Spain and Greece sided with Germany. Paradoxically, it was these three countries that harshly criticized Germany’s debt plan last March.
But disagreements are emerging from within as well from without. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies are becoming increasingly affected by German public opinion and the mistrust toward EU institutions. Many in Germany disagree with the EU’s choice to bail out Greece and Ireland and aid other European states facing impending bankruptcy, including Portugal and Spain.
In the long run, the discordance within the EU will prove harmful to European interests in North Africa. It will also be far more challenging for the EU to aid in the stabilization of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and will ultimately expose Europe as a powerhouse on the decline. Last December Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, expressed concern regarding the US’s growing convictions that Europe is unable to manage an effective foreign policy. 
But because of its overstretched military capacity, Washington will have no choice but to revisit its priorities, and in all likelihood will choose to focus primarily on events in the Gulf States rather than those in North Africa. Thus, similar to events in the early twentieth century (when Pax Britannica was coming to an end and the UK relied in part on the French Navy to protect its strategic interests in the Mediterranean Sea), the Obama administration today may be seeking to form a division of geopolitical tasks with the EU. Europe - including Turkey and under the umbrella of  NATO - will be responsible for the southern flank of the Mediterranean basin (in particular Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) while the US will have the Arabian Peninsula in its charge.
Since the creation of the European Community in 1957, the US prescribed a “one voice” formula, and it is on this that the EU should be focusing its efforts today.  It should also be looking to capitalize on the developments unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East, at least in places like Tunisia and Egypt where democracy appears to be on the horizon. It needs to exert power in these regions to prevent fundamentalism from overtaking.
Gaining North Africa to democracy would invariably be the best strategy for Europe. Not least of all, it may trigger a lasting relationship on the basis of shared values rather than shared business. Such a model would differ wildly from China’s strategy vis-à-vis Africa, whereby the former is content to keep dictatorships and autocracies in power (think Sudan, Zimbabwe and so on). [And China’s predatory strategy isn’t limited to struggling countries in Africa; recently it has been quietly exporting it to several European states hit by economic woes.]  
Over the last 10 years, China has been playing a strategic wooing game with Europe and the US in Africa (and to some degree, the Middle East too), granting financial aid as well as infrastructural investments in exchange for energy resources and raw materials. A string of deals were forged in return for an underhanded “non-interference” policy on the part of the US and Europe in the sovereign affairs of those particular countries.  
In summary then, the real watershed for Europe’s political integration will not be in solving the disputes surrounding financial-rescue packages. Rather, it will come from Europe’s ability to devise a common policy about what to do in the stretch of desert from Tripoli to Benghazi. This time however, it should be something more ambitious than the previous EU concoction of deploying a military operation in Libya with a comical budget of 8 million euro.
The writer is a journalist and geopolitical analyst based in Rome.