Open Europe Blog

As a follow-up to our much discussed report on the EU’s external aid policy, on Sunday we published a new briefing looking at the effectiveness of EU assistance to North Africa and the Middle East. The EU’s funding effort towards its Southern neighbours has so far been remarkable: more than €13 billion committed between 1995 and 2013. Not exactly peanuts.

Hence, in the light of recent events across the area, a few questions arise. Couldn’t the EU have achieved more in return in terms of democratic reforms and political stability in the Mediterranean region? Was all of EU money well spent? What have the real benefits been for these countries?

In our briefing, we suggest some possible answers. First of all, in its relations with Mediterranean countries, the EU has privileged political stability over democracy, by developing close ties with autocratic regimes such as Egypt and Tunisia, and sometimes providing them with direct aid funding. The Commission has consistently increased its funding commitments to these countries despite noting limited or no progress in terms of democratic reforms and human rights in its own policy assessments.

This links to one of the EU’s most frequent mistakes: adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ – the European Neighbourhood Policy in this specific case – for groups of countries which have very little in common. In fact, unlike former Soviet states, countries in North Africa and the Middle East have no chance whatsoever of joining the EU in future. Therefore, in the absence of the ‘golden carrot’ of EU membership, they have little or no incentive to go beyond those superficial reforms sufficient to persuade the Commission to keep its funding tap open.

This is something that has started to dawn on top EU officials. At the end of February, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle told MEPs,

Many of us fell prey to the assumption that authoritarian regimes were a guarantee of stability in the [Mediterranean] region. This was not even Realpolitik. It was, at best, short-termism – and the kind of short-termism that makes the long term ever more difficult to build.

Similarly, in an op-ed published by several European papers yesterday, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy admitted,

In the past, we haven’t always respected our own values by giving priority to the interest in regional stability and even accepting regimes which weren’t democratic in order to counter the risk of fanatic dictatorships.

Neither have closer relations with the EU helped to boost Mediterranean countries’ prosperity via increased trade. On the contrary, the EU’s Southern neighbours have seen their annual trade deficit with the EU soar from €530 million in 2006 to €20.4 billion in 2010. In addition, Mediterranean countries still have to face tariff quotas on their exports of agricultural products to the EU and – with the exception of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – remain subject to the EU’s over-complicated system of ‘rules of origin’.

There are also examples of poor monitoring. €40m was handed out in the Palestinian territories in 2006 and 2007 with no “documentation to record disbursements”, according to an audit by ADE, a Belgian consultancy hired by the Commission. “We simply don’t know where the funds went to because there was no evidence of how they were spent,” said Tanguy de Biolley, a director of ADE, to the Sunday Times.

Making aid to Mediterranean countries voluntary, removing barriers to trade and adopting strategies tailored to each one of the EU’s partners could all help boost the effectiveness of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy in the Mediterranean and ensure that European taxpayers get better value for their money.

It is good to see the likes of Van Rompuy and Füle willing to admit there are problems, but what is really needed is a thorough debate about what role the EU should play in development funding. Tinkering with existing policies won’t solve the deep-seated confusions and contradictions present in the EU’s approach.

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