In early 2011, the debate in the European Union about the repercussions of the Arab awakening that started in late 2010 and continues to this day was largely framed in terms of opportunities rather than risks. The prospect of democracy finally making headway in one of the most static regions of the world in both political and economic terms triggered hopes on the northern shores of the Mediterranean about the Arab neighbors eventually becoming more “like us.”
This positive take might have to do with, positively put, a confidence in Arab societies to embark toward intrinsically stable, Western-type democracies or, to frame it less friendly, a good dose of wishful thinking of Europeans prone to neglecting the fact that the neighboring countries and societies have been and will remain rather different. But this would be a too simple analysis.
Without any doubt, Europeans still have a strong memory of the revolutions on their own continent a little more than two decades ago, in the course of which the Iron Curtain opened. Following the events in 1989, Germany was reunited, and most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe embarked on the path of a peaceful transformation toward democracy and a social market economy, and eventually became members of the Union in 2004 and 2007, respectively.
This recent memory as well as the track record of successfully supporting the transition processes in their eastern neighborhood certainly played a role in the initial discussions in Europe following the fall of the presidents Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gadhafi. The post-1989 experience also resonated in the language of the two communications that the European Commission and the European External Action Service adopted in March and May 2011, responding to the changes in the neighborhood.
However, the opening of the incrusted regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region quickly suggested that the upheavals would also go along with negative repercussions: civil wars in Libya and Syria (and a military intervention backed by EU members in the former while struggling to respond to the latter); the unclear prospect of Egypt’s transition, a pivotal country in the region; (so far limited) numbers of refugees trying to make it to the shores of the EU from North Africa; and an increasingly nervous Israel quickly reminded Europeans that they live with an explosive neighborhood—a neighborhood that raised concerns in the European Union’s capitals already in the past, as was expressed in the EU’s Security Strategy adopted in 2003.
This all meant that the debate, despite the continuous and largely genuine hope for a more democratic neighboring region, soon returned to the “business as usual” of the first decade of the twenty-first century. In the mid-1990s there had been a spirit of optimism: The prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians had led to the launch of the so-called “Barcelona Process,” a Euro-Mediterranean platform for dialogue on politics, security, economics, and human rights. But by the beginning of the new millennium, Europeans increasingly looked at their neighborhood through the prism of security. 9/11 played a major role in this, as did subsequent terrorist attacks within Europe, such as in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). Apart from these new types of terrorism, fighting illegal migration became the other arena in which Euro-Mediterranean relations, especially with North African countries, developed, and the EU welcomed the willingness of the regimes to cooperate in keeping migrants away from its shores.