Last week the European Union organized a high secular mass in Barcelona, Spain, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Euro-Med partnership between EU countries and their counterparts from the southern and eastern Mediterranean. The event was to have been an acknowledgment of success; instead it was a confirmation of the limitations of the process, particularly on democracy, even as the United States continues to propose a more assertive model for the region.
One EU official has described Brussels' strategy toward the south in this way: "Europe speaks softly and carries a big carrot." Indeed, a cornerstone of the European approach during the last decade has been to provide incentives for institutional and economic reforms among Mediterranean partner states, through the medium of bilateral association agreements, in the hope that this would generate political openness. It has mostly failed. EU prodding on reform has done little to alter the behavior of the Arab despots dotting the region; on the contrary, in providing assistance to its southern neighbors, the EU has arguably bolstered their leaders.
There are several problems with the EU approach. Barcelona is an extraordinarily complex and cumbersome construct, in which EU decision-making involves finding lowest common denominators between what are today 25 member states. This is the political equivalent of herding cats, particularly as the new Eastern European members have very different interests than those defined by the smaller Union ten years ago.
I recall meeting with a top European official in Beirut during the summer of 2004. I asked her whether the EU was finally willing to address the matter of freedom and democracy in Lebanon, which Syria had stifled or manipulated through its hegemony over the country. After all, the country was among the few in the Arab world which had long ago bought into the idea of free-markets and liberalism, though this needed urgent fortification from the outside to avoid disappearing.
The official was sympathetic, then explained why the EU was not. The expanded Union had too many other agendas to much care about Lebanon, let alone bureaucratically justify placing it higher on its to-do list. That was understandable. But it also caught the EU in an embarrassing contradiction, one all the more flagrant once the Lebanese showed their eagerness this year to be rid of Syria: in an Arab state where both the democratic and economic facets of the Barcelona process could be advanced, EU bureaucrats had resigned themselves to stalemate. Invited to converse on democracy, the official responded like a social secretary.
In this context, Mediterranean democracy, perhaps understandably, languished at the level of a deferrable desirable for a long time, until the EU came to the realization that its entire regional strategy risked being exposed as an emperor with no clothes. But what also helped was that the Bush administration forcefully placed democratization at the top of its own regional agenda, effectively obliging the desultory mandarins in Brussels to remember a key part of what Barcelona was all about.
Yet though democracy moved higher up the EU list of priorities, it was overtaken by more urgent issues such as limiting illegal immigration and fighting terrorism. One of the flagrant failures of the Barcelona summit was the participants' inability to agree a common definition of terrorism. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who chaired the meeting, fudged the issue by declaring that "people are united in their condemnation of killing innocent people through terrorism." But what he left unsaid was that EU-Med collaboration on terrorism also means the EU has less scope to pressure its southern and eastern neighbors on democratization.
A third difficulty of the Barcelona process, as David Buchan of the Financial Times has argued, is that of leverage. As the newspaper pointed out this week in an unsigned editorial, "EU influence over its neighbors depends largely on whether the latter stand any chance of joining the EU." Given that this is highly improbable, there are limits to what Europe can ask from its Mediterranean partners, so that Barcelona must be recorded as "a minus on the political side of the ledger."
It's easy to dump on the diffidence implicit in the Barcelona process by pointing to the appealing flair of the more "hard power" style of the U.S. when it comes to liberalizing the Middle East and North Africa. The reality, however, is that while the Bush administration has implicitly exposed the limitations of Barcelona on democracy, it has not allowed its invasion of Iraq to stand up as a convincing alternative model. In reality, during the past two years the U.S. has increasingly mixed more carrots with its sticks, more multilateralism with its unilateralism, in the "broader Middle East," so that the image of an administration operated by a gaggle of neocons hell-bent on going it alone in the world is at best a caricature.
The consensus today is that the clunky Barcelona leviathan must somehow be recast if it is to survive. A useful start might be for the EU to reverse its order of precedence: rather than focusing on economic and institutional amelioration among its Mediterranean partners to open up closed political spaces, it might consider pushing for greater democracy and accountability to open up economic spaces monopolized by political elites. But would Brussels ever contemplate taking such an intrepid step? Devotion to lowest common denominators makes that very doubtful.
*Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.