The protest movement in the Arab world has been likened to the popular uprisings that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. The EU, back then, rose to the challenge, embraced and supported the fledgling democracies with vast amounts of money, and ultimately rewarded the most reliably democracy-minded among them with EU-membership. Even since then, close cooperation programs have continued with many others.

Now, faced with another historic transformation on its fringe, Europe is getting ready to embrace new democracies in the Arab world. There will not be any new EU-memberships down the road, and the true scope of the strategy has yet to emerge. But it is clear that Europe is gearing up for its greatest financial and conceptual effort to help change a whole part of the planet since, well, 1989.

Wolf Lepenies, one of Germany’s most influential sociologists, has drawn up the maximalist vision of what could be done. He demands a “new Marshall Plan” for the Arab countries. Lepenies recently argued that the EU needs to do for the Middle East what the USA once did for Europe: Shower them with money, but on condition of increased political cooperation. In Europe, Lepenies argues, this condition led to the beginning of what is now the EU. In the Arab world, he says, something similar should attempted, a Union of Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. In his vision, the starting point could be the EU’s “Union for the Mediterranean”, created in 2008 to foster democracy and development in Europe’s “Southern Neighbourhood” (but largely dysfunctional so far).

This is just a vision. The actual plan, not yet finalized, is called “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”. The EU Commission published a blueprint for its basic lines of action on 8th March. The actual details and funding are still being fleshed out and should be announced later in April. What it all amounts to is, in a nutshell, a retooling of all the instruments that have helped Eastern Europe since 1989. The European Investment Bank (EIB) will lend more money to countries like Tunisia, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), hitherto inactive in the Middle East, is considering how to start programs for reform-minded Arab countries (its statutes would need to be changed for this). The European Neighbourhood Partnership Instrument (ENPI), designed to foster democracy and civic society in countries on Europe’s eastern and southern fringe, will focus more on the South than on the East.

That raises an immediate question for Hungary’s European priorities. Will the new focus on Europe’s southern neighbours mean neglect for its eastern neighbours, financially and conceptually? Hungary and Poland have become dedicated advocates for the countries on the EU’s eastern fringe. They cannot remain indifferent to a shift of European attention from East to South.

For starters, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Catherine Ashton, announced in February that the EU would urgently increase support for Tunisia. She promised 17 million EUR of additional funds for projects. The framework for this assistance would be the “European Neighbours Partnership Program” (ENPI). But the increase in ENPI assistance may become far more substantial. Only a few weeks after Ashton’s announcement, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, Stefan Füle, said on 1st April: “To give you an idea: We had planned to spend 160 million EUR in Tunisia in 2012 and 2013 (…) I could envision a doubling of this amount.” That would mean 320 million, just from the ENPI and just for Tunisia – but, Füle hastened to add, “all of this is just a beginning, and we are ready to do much more.”

What this means is that the internal debates concerning EU policies towards the southern periphery are rapidly evolving, and financially open-ended. This must explode the original financial framework for ENPI programs, set at 12 billion Euros for the period 2007–2013. The probable increase comes at a time of economic duress in Europe. Where will the money be found? Will assistance for the Eastern Neighbours be reduced to offset the costs of increased assistance to the South?

“No. No such shift of funds is planned”, says Füle. Funds would be scratched together from other sources. Specifics are not yet shared with the public, as “we cannot go into details before we have completed our analysis and informed the Council of Ministers and the European parliament as the budgetary authority.” Without naming sums, his office indicated that “if need be, we will look whether calling on other funding sources such as the flexibility instrument and our emergency aid reserve are needed.”

Quite possibly, more funds for the Southern Neighbours will indeed be needed. In that case, funds allocated for Eastern Neighbourhood programs would, relatively speaking, represent a smaller share of the total ENPI envelope than originally planned. If the protest movement in the Arab world leads to real and comprehensive democratic reforms, rather than some version of Islamic revolution or an Arab repeat of Hungary’s failed uprising of 1956, then we can expect a massive increase of European funds for the Southern Neighbours after the current ENPI program runs out in 2013. Whatever new plan will be worked out for the years after that, it would probably focus much more on the South than on the East.

Beyond the ENPI framework, the European Investment Bank (EIB) is also gearing up to increase its assistance for the Southern Neighbours. In February, the EIB announced that it was prepared to double its lending to the Southern Neighbours, to reach 6 billion EUR in 2013. In March, it announced financing for projects in Tunisia totaling 1.87 billion Euros. It had provided 500 million EUR in 2010, out of a total of 2.6 billion in that year for the nine Southern Neighbours. The Europan Parliament has proposed an additional lending envelope of 1 billion EUR for the EIB, and Commission has asked the Council to agree. If the democracy movement in the Arab world prevails, much larger sums may come into play via the EIB in the future.

Likewise, if, as proposed by the EU Commission, the EBRD’s statutes were to be amended to enable the bank to assist reform-minded Arab countries, the funding for such operations is likely to increase substantially over the next few years. The European Commission has mentioned “an annual EBRD business activity of an initial 1 billion EUR, to be reached within the banks existing resources.” One billion thus, to begin with – but probably more later.

The financial supercharging of assistance programs for the EU’s Southern Neighbours coincides with a general overhaul of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy, the details of which will be rolled out in May. In essence, it will mean a shifting of resources away from countries at odds with democracy and good governance. On the other hand, countries that try their best to comply with European standards in terms of rule of law, democracy and human rights will benefit and receive more funds and attention. “More for more” is how the EU has been touting the new approach. One could also say “Less for less”, and it will certainly mean a cutting of funds for authoritarian regimes such as Belarus – but perhaps also Syria.

To some extent, then, new funds for newly democratic Arab countries may come from a reduction of funds for less democratic regimes among ENPI beneficiaries. This new “conditionality” of EU assistance, as well as the basic philosophy of its new approach to Middle East, mark a profound and very welcome transformation of its Middle East strategy. Ever since the oil crisis of 1973, Europeans have tended to believe that the “Middle East conflict”, involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Muslim countries, needed to be solved in order to achieve peace and stability in the region. Europe’s new analysis is quite different, and belatedly espouses views that have been put forward in the UN’s “Arab Human Development Reports” ever since 2002: The real problems in the Arab world have little to do with Israel. Lack of education, of participation, of job perspectives, the profoundly unjust treatment of women and a general educational deficit that has nothing to do with Islam but rather with autocratic regimes fearful of an educated population – those have been the real problems all along.

And because this is so, the EU’s previous approach to ENPI and EIB and other assistance to the region had little transformational impact. It consisted of sending money and implementing worthy programs, tied to very commendable conditions that were never met, which Europe of course found regrettable, but wired the money nonetheless. “To milk Europeans was a favorite sport of the autocratic regimes”, remarked Clemens Wergin, one of Germany’s most profiled political commentators, in a speech at Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum a few weeks ago. In the EU’s new blueprint for its Middle East strategy, the aforementioned “Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean”, one needs to read to the very end of the document to find any mention of the Palestinian conflict at all.

Transformational impact: The new “Partnership for Democracy” is yet a far cry from Lepenies’ “new Marshall Plan”. But, if followed through, it would be Europe’s first serious attempt at transforming the Middle East, after the Bush Administration tried and failed with its “Greater Middle East Initiative” of 2004. Hungary may be tempted to think it is not really concerned, that this is all very far away, and it may want to restrict its attention to its immediate eastern and southeastern neighbourhood.

Yet Hungary’s long tradition of spirited revolt against oppression should make it feel close at heart to the yearnings of those young Arabs who are ready to die for self-determination. There is a lot Hungary – and other formerly communist EU-members – can give them. Advice on how to deal with corrupt “ancient regime” elites for instance: whether to leave them in place to some degree in the media, the economy, jurisprudence and administration, or sweep them out with an iron broom. Hungary has gone through a similar ordeal and knows that one may gain a peaceful transition by compromising, but that such a transformation will remain incomplete and inevitably engender more problems down the road.

Freedom and Democracy are lofty ideals, as well as “conditionality”, but how will it all hold up? Pragmatic issues dictate the EU’s urgent focus on the South. Some of them are spelled out in the “Partnership for Democracy”: Immigration control and energy security. Less repressive regimes may mean less control on the shores of northern Africa. Already, thousands of refugees have swept into Italy and Malta. In the “Partnership for Democracy”, the idea is to make aid conditional on, for example, efficient border controls. But in tough negotiations over the last few weeks, as the EU tried to get Tunisia to take back some refugees, rather the opposite took place. The provisional Tunisian authorities have so far refused to repatriate more than a few refugees (out of 22 000 who left the country since the upheavals began). Tunisia sets conditions on such repatriations. Essentially the government wants more European assistance if it is to agree to anything. It seems that, at least in some policy areas, the “milking” of Europe may well continue in the new, more democratic era, rather than Europe setting conditions for help. Desperate Italy, Malta and Spain may well be prepared to agree to pretty much anything, if only to stop that flood of refugees.

Of course, the EU is not the only actor scrambling to influence the Arab revolutions. Apart from the USA, Wolf Lepenies’ dream of a Union of the Mediterranean countries is reflected in remarkably similar visions in Istanbul. The Islamic oriented government there, in office since 2001, has openly pushed for an “economic and political Union” of Middle Eastern countries, with Turkey as its “center of gravity”. Visa requirements have been abolished for Syria, Lebanon and a range of other countries. (Compare that to the EU’s fear of increased immigration.) The moral base for such a “Union” would not be the EU’s catalogue of universal values, but the common bond of Islam and History. In fact, foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has written, in his book “civilizational transformation”, that the “West” (and thus the EU) “lacks value-legitimacy”, as it relies “merely on material superiority” and thus “cannot be the best or last form of civilization.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went as far as to say, in a speech in Kuwait last January: “This region has the potential to shape the whole world”, if only Arabs and Turks could work together.

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