EU foreign policy in MENA: the pitfalls of depoliticization

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Ruth Hanau Santini, Università L’Orientale, Napoli

In the last few years, Europe has struggled to simultaneously cope with internal and external crises. Internally it is coping with the rise of anti-establishment parties, democratic backsliding and Brexit, to name just the most pressing ones. Externally, it has failed to formulate a comprehensive approach dealing with the post-Arab uprisings regional turmoil, including increased migratory flows, terrorist threats and civil and proxy wars from Syria to Yemen.

Three critical dossiers in European foreign policy offer insight into its approach to the MENA region: democratizing Tunisia, political involution in Egypt, and the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) . The EU has been motivated by transformative goals in Tunisia and Iran, while in the case of Egypt it has defended the status quo. In terms of logics of action, it has depoliticized dossiers in Egypt and Tunisia, while it has politicized the nuclear agreement’s dossier, even when the US unilaterally withdrew in May 2018. The strategies of depoliticization have taken different shapes in Egypt and Tunisia: vis-à-vis the former, the EU has restarted political cooperation since 2015 despite an authoritarian reconfiguration, while in Tunisia, despite a democratizing process, Brussels has kept a minimum common denominator of democracy, espousing a procedural understanding.

In the past two decades, the EU has looked at Tunisia and Egypt through the prism of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), a contractual framework in place since 2004 regulating and advancing relations with the EU’s eastern and southern neighboring countries. The ENP was initially held as a transformative policy tool for the development and stabilization of neighboring countries, but its technocratic logic has quickly surfaced and imposed itself in the EU’s bilateral relations with the southern Med. When the 2010-2011 uprisings took place, the consensus over the until then predominantly governance-driven approach was shattered and political considerations came to the fore.

In response, the EU reformulated its policy and claimed to be assisting democratic change through political conditionality. Between 2011 and 2015, Brussels endorsed a pro-democracy based policy vis-à-vis countries undergoing political change in its southern neighborhood. In its own critique of its previous approaches,[1] the EU stepped up its ambitions and argued in favor of promoting ‘deep democracy,’ whereby democratic reforms would be rewarded with greater access to markets or increased mobility to Europe. The EU would stick to an enhanced form of positive conditionality, or ‘More for More,’ complemented by what the European Parliament termed ‘the less for less’ approach, where democratic backsliding would be met by less access to European markets and openings. While the former has taken place in Tunisia, albeit within a neoliberal procedural understanding of democracy, negative conditionality has never been applied, not even in post-2013 authoritarian Egypt.

This approach ceased as Egypt and other Arab states opted for new authoritarian configuration and issues such as migration rose to the fore across European capitals. So did the kind of ‘deep democracy’ the EU aimed to promote. This half-hearted support to Arab democracy was partially also a consequence of a conceptually vague European understanding of democracy, where elements of social, political and procedural democracy are intertwined, without identifying the conditions under which one should be promoted rather than another. This conceptual vagueness[2] has had one crucial policy implication in the post-2011 southern neighborhood: a depoliticized view of democracy[3] even in those rare contexts where endogenous social forces were and are pushing for change, such as Tunisia. Instead of “deep democracy,” the EU has pushed for different citizenship rights, mostly civil (as in the case of the ENP and European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights. EIDHR) or political (as is the case with the European Endowment for Democracy, EED), working partially in a complementary, partially in a contradictory way.[4]

Among all these different tools, only the EED endorsed an emancipatory view of democracy which understands citizenship as ‘a field of struggle between freedom and obedience,’ where citizens are ‘both subjects of power- requiring disobedience- and subjects to power -requiring obedience.[5] The EED was how the EU talked the talk of change and transformation after the Uprisings, employing the notion of ‘deep democracy’ to be promoted and supported abroad. The other tools, be it the ENP or the EIDHR, adhere to more mainstream procedural understandings of citizenship and democracy.

If, overall, the EU abode by a protective,[6] static understanding of democracy, where rights are defined once and for all and electoral participation is the only benchmark to measure democratic success,[7] by so doing it lost the opportunity to side with local social forces demanding for much deeper changes in structural power relations, both political and economic. This would have required a developmentalist, dynamic view where rights can and should be expanded, fought for, in a neverending process of changing state-society relations.[8]

This played out differently across different cases. In Tunisia, Brussels espoused a transformative agenda aimed at creating an inclusive and democratic political system, as far away as possible from the Ben Ali’s regime. Brussles, however, despite these normative goals, has remained within the remit of procedural, Schumpeterian depoliticized democracy, mostly centered around free and fair elections, with only residual references to forms of political participation beyond the electoral moment.

This was coupled with the adoption of the same neoliberal economic assistance policies it used to adopt before 2010. While intended to create an inclusive and sustainable growth, their neoliberal orientation and top-down nature has depoliticized the overall EU transformative effort. Social justice and redistribution have therefore remained on paper as ultimate goals to be attained, without actively promoting them. .

In the case of Egypt, the EU initially timidly embraced change, politically represented by the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), refraining however from halting cooperation and assistance once -following massive popular demonstrations demanding change- the military successfully staged a military coup in July 2013. The EU response to the increasing authoritarian backsliding there has been negligible, beside asking for a fair process for the jailed MB leader, Mohammed Morsi.

After initial emancipatory conceptions such as the ‘deep democracy’ one, then, since 2014 and the authoritarian backlash in Egypt, the closure of political space in Morocco and worsening prospects in Libya and Syria, more cautious formulations and static conceptions came to the fore in European thinking, which immediately reverberated in the EU’s relations with Egypt. Between March and November 2015, the European Commission underwent a review of its Neighborhood Policy, centered around the imperative of ‘stabilization.’ Democracy had, by then, disappeared from the list of the axes guiding European foreign policy in the region (trade, connectivity, migration and governance).[9]

The EU never employed the full list of deep democracy indicators adopted in 2011 as benchmarks in assessing democratic progress from one year to the next within the ENP. The mid-term review referred to the principles of differentiation and ownership rather than deep democracy.[10] This facilitated the maintenance of political relations within the ENP with Egypt: the EU-Egypt Association Council resumed its meetings in 2015 and met eight times until 2018. Even the limited leverage Brussels could have counted on vis-à-vis un-democratizing or increasingly illiberal or authoritarian political regime was lost for lack of political will to implement and follow through with previous foreign policy decisions. So, if the main areas of cooperation between 2007-2013 had been political reform and good governance, economic competitiveness, in 2014-2016 the focus was on assisting the socioeconomic sector and the EU decreased its support in all issues related to political reform.

Since the 2013 coup, the EU simply omitted the democracy assistance policies from its bilateral relations with Egypt. Had the EU wanted to try to bypass the post-2014 Sisi government and support civil rights, it could have tried to more forcefully use the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), which could have strengthened the civil and human rights’ side of democracy in a developmental way. The EIDHR enables the Union to bypass local governments and directly channel democracy support to selected associations (not, however, unions, religious-based groups, individuals. To reflect on the limited use of this instrument by Europe, suffice it to consider that between 2014-2017, Egypt benefitted from only 4 million euros through this funding program, the only one which can directly engage with local CSOs,[11] while only in 2016 profiting from an assistance from the ENP equaling over 139 million euros.[12]

The realpolitik trend was further discursively legitimized in June 2016 with the adoption of the European Global Strategy (EUGS), the new EU security strategy, premised on the so-called ‘principled pragmatism.’ According to the Strategy, the EU should: strengthen security and defence; invest in the resilience of states and societies to our East and South; develop an integrated approach to conflicts and crises; promote and support cooperative regional orders; and reinforce a global governance.[13] The pragmatist turn in interventionism was coupled with the local turn, emphasizing resilience -societal capacity to face change, be it endogenous or exogenous-. The oxymoronic expression of ‘principled pragmatism’ could be easily led as a call for supporting democracy on a case-by-case basis,[14] rather than as a defining EU guiding principle in its relations with the southern neighborhood. The EU had come full circle and all its pro-deep democracy discourse adopted in the wake of the Arab uprisings was dismissed once and for all.

Basically, the EU left its political ambitions to promote democracy in an emancipatory way in the neighborhood to a residual tool, the European Endowment for Democracy, a tool created in 2013 as an independent trust fund. The EED’s core goals are to “build citizens’ capacities and strengthen independent voices, support initiatives that build foundations for more inclusive and participatory democracies and work to counter corruption.”[15] It is a small program, symbolic in terms of outreach but highly flexible, which can directly channel funds to foreign political parties, social movements, democracy activists. In a residual and complementary fashion, therefore, Brussels instrumentally supports political democracy in the southern and eastern neighborhood, albeit with such limited sums and small individual projects impossible to replicate in a systematic way that their impact is intended to remain largely symbolic.

However, while 2015 marked the return of realpolitik Europe in North Africa, vis-à-vis Iran, Europe stood by its transformative goal of ending the nuclear crisis with Iran and contribute to normalize relations with the country by remaining the staunchest supporter of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The agreement was signed in July 2015 after a decade-long international diplomatic efforts initially spearheaded by the E3 (France, the UK and Germany), then joined by the EU, and lastly becoming the E3/EU+3 or P5+1 (France, United Kingdom, US, Russia, China plus Germany). After the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, the US unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in May 2018, with a view to re-impose sanctions against Iran.

The EU pledged Iran it would try to compensate by increasing economic exchanges with Tehran, preserve the country’s ability to export oil and maintain banking transactions. While operationally it has so far struggled to devise effective ways to keep banking transactions afloat, it has been working on a ‘special purpose vehicle,’ intended to bypass US sanctions, called INSTEX, based in France and operating with EU financial guarantees.[16] To address concerns outside the JCPOA, the EU entered into ‘structured dialogue’ with Iran in January 2018 and has been actively trying to promote a constructive solution not just to the Iran’s nuclear program issue but also to the country’s regional role.[17] Without refraining from playing a prominent role on the international diplomatic stage, Brussels and European capitals have politicized the Iran’s issue and have dared taking a different stance from the US, in 2003 when they initiated dialogue with Tehran, and after the US unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018. The Iranian dossier shows the capacity Europe has to mobilize for an international foreign policy crisis, stand by its stance, keep a united front and not backing down. While leading to the JCPOA was considered one of the greatest EU foreign policy successes in the past two decades, the prospects now for bringing the two sides back to the table look grim. This, however, should not lead astray from the commitment and the difference Europe can make on the global stage when it consistently acts as a norm entrepreneur.

Europe therefore initially welcomed post-2011 political change, as showed by its foreign policy discursive and policy change in 2011. However, the EU’s normative stance lasted only a couple of years and its transformative goals vis-à-vis the transitioning countries have subsided and have been incrementally replaced by pro-status quo concerns, as epitomized by its new foreign policy orientations adopted in 2015-2016 vis-à-vis Egypt, most notably, but also Tunisia, where it only accompanied domestic change, without serving as a political democracy supporter. Together with the change of heart, its role has progressively become that of a depoliticizing actor, taking political issues off the agenda or dealing with both Tunisia and Egypt in a procedural way. While Brussels has openly advocated for more inclusive societies and polities in its southern neighborhood, this vision has been supported with the smallest diplomatic instruments and limited economic resources, while the bulk of the EU’s action has failed to shift from a promotion of different kinds of protective democracy to developmental ones. The liberal democracy exported by the EU in its near abroad has continued to focus on elections, procedural democracy, rule of law, civil society, restraining the more egalitarian and participatory aspects of democracy, and sacrificing the empowerment of both political and socio-economic rights, on the altar of minimum advances in its human rights and procedural democracy agenda.

The EU in MENA has been a consistent transformative actor when it comes to Iran, considered a key foreign policy issue not just in Europe’s neighborhood but for international politics, where Europe has stood by its initial hunch in devising a diplomatic solution and re-integrating Iran in the regional and international political environment, even when left alone by the US Trumpian u-turn, creatively trying to devise diplomatic and economic tools to keep Iran in the nuclear agreement and not restart the enrichment program or cut diplomatic ties with the international community. Europe has demonstrated it can politicize issues and stand by them for a long period of time when facing international crises, while when issues are closer to home but their salience is harder to ascertain in security terms, the EU manages challenges and muddles through in a depoliticized way.


[1] European Commission, “Partnership for Democracy and shared prosperity”, March 2011.

[2] Milja Kurki, “Political Economy Perspective: Fuzzy Liberalism and EU Democracy Promotion: Why Concepts Matter,” The Substance of EU Democracy Promotion, 35-37.

[3] Milja Kurki, “How the EU Can Adopt a New Type of Democracy Support” (FRIDE Brief, 112, March

[4] Ruth Hanau Santini, 2018 “The EU and its southern neighbors: a fuzzy model of citizenship promotion?” in: Butenschon, Nils A. and Roel Meijer (Eds.), The Middle East in transition. The centrality of citizenship, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 251-272.

[5] Étienne Balibar, “Citizen Subject,” in Who Comes After the Subject, ed. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy (London: Routledge, 1991), 46.

[6] David Held, Models of Democracy (Stanford University Press, 2006).

[7] Devin K. Joshi, “The Protective and Developmental Varieties of Liberal Democracy: A Difference in Kind or Degree?” Democratization 20 (2013) 2: 187-214.

[8] Étienne Balibar, Citizenship (Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton. Oxford: Polity Press, 2015).

[9] European Commission, “Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.” Review of the European Neighborhood Policy, 18 November 2015, 3.

[10] European Commission 2015 (ibid).


[12] European Commission, 2017. Annual Report on the implementation of the European Union’s Instruments for financing external action in 2016.

[13]  Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, June 2016, p. 25-26. Accessed at:

[14] Ana Juncos, 2016. “Resilience as the new EU foreign policy paradigm: a pragmatist turn?”, European Security.

[15] European Endowment for Democracy, Annual Report 2016, 5. Accessed at:

[16] “INSTEX: Europe Sets Up Transactions Channel with Iran”, in Deutsche Welle, 31 January 2019,

[17]Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi et al, “Better together: Brexit, the E3, and the future of Europe’s approach towards Iran”, RUSI, 18th April 2018. Available at:’s-approach-towards-iran