In 2003 -2005 revolutions in the neighbourhood were all the rage. Georgia, Ukraine and Lebanon have all inspired high-hopes among their own populations, as well as the EU and US. Then, many of those hopes collapsed, the revolutions lost their glitz, and the EU and US settled for a revolution-sceptic mood. Having gone through enthusiasm and then fatigue for revolutions, the EU now has to have views on revolutions again. It would rather not. But in less than two months the EU neighbourhood has been agitated by revolutionary situations in Belarus, Albania, Tunisia and now Egypt.
Coming up with coherent EU responses to today’s ‘revolutions’ is more difficult. The problem for the EU is not so much the lack of visibility, but the lack of a clear-cut position with which to be visible. Back in 2003-2005, EU’s sympathies were clear (though not always as explicitly articulated at revolutionaries wanted it), but now the EU is struck by the scale of events and is mainly stuck on the fence. As Daniel Korski asks: “Should the EU back the protests, support what has been a friendly regime or sit uncomfortably on the fence?”
The fence-sitting moment (for many it is a ‘fence-sitting eternity’) is something which comes up at every single revolutionary situation the EU is supposed to have a view on. It is always uncomfortable, but sometimes it is easier to choose sides than other. Responding to Belarus’ suppression of post-election protests last December was relatively ‘easy’. It might not be effective, but there was no room for fence-sitting, and the EU was practically pre-determined to reimpose sanctions on Lukashenko and his cronies. Of course this was tried before and hasn’t worked. But what else can the EU do? After years of sanctions since the late 90s, the EU tried to engage with Lukashenko for the last few years, but engagement was pushed aside by the repression of post-electoral protests. To a certain extent, the new set of sanctions are not introduced to change Lukashenko, but for EU’s peace of mind and modicum of self-respect. So the EU policy on Belarus came full circle – sanctions, then engagement and now sanctions again. Nothing worked in the end. (Though engagement seemed to bring some moderate progress, which proved unsustainable however.)
But Albania, Tunisia and Egypt are much more complicated when it comes to having coherent reactions and choosing on which side of the fence to put the EU. The reasons are many-fold. To begin with, the EU is relatively disappointed with the value and sustainability of coloured revolutions. Mostly because of Ukraine’s Orange failure (see the blog post on ‘Ukraine fatigue’), but Lebanon (which just saw Hariri Jr ousted and a Hezbollah-backed prime-minister brought in) has hardly been a success story. Georgia has been a decent success in terms of reforms, but the 2008 war have tarnished its reputation and fueled ‘Georgia fatigue’ in the EU and US. Either way the EU burned its fingers on having high hopes in successful revolutionary mid-term outcomes in the neighbourhood. Add to that an Obama administration that seems to have a preference for realist-type engagements. And a general and increasing lack of self-confidence in the West because of the ‘rise of the rest’. What you get out of this is a mix of extreme caution and counter-revolutionary instincts in both the EU and the US.
Then, if you go through the latest set of revolutions country by country, the choices are even tougher. Albania has an EU accession perspective and has just received the possibility of visa-free travel to the EU, supposedly for structural reforms in the law-enforcement sector. So the Albanian government is supposed to be a respectable, democratic partner of the EU. You cannot treat it like Kuchma’s Ukraine or Shevardnadze’ Georgia. But then 3 people were left dead in Albania during the latest riots, the government’s legitimacy is seriously questioned, the country seems to be in a process of self-destruction, and the crisis is not over yet, even if all the media attention is on Egypt now. But the EU still cannot jump off its fence, because a legitimate question is how on earth did Albania get a visa-free regime just 3 months ago if the governments is so bad?
Tunisia, an authoritarian, but reformist state in the Southern neighbourhood also presented the EU with a set of hard choices. Tunisia was one of those cases where the EU was confused when it came to taking attitudes towards their reformism/democracy performance. Still, Tunisia benefited from a lot of EU support. In the World Bank’s Cost of Doing Business index Tunisia was ahead of Croatia and Montenegro (but in the Press Freedom it was behind Lybia and Uzbekistan). Anyway, Tunisia was small, geopolitically not-so-important and Islamists were not a first-order issue. So EU’s fence sitting for most of the revolution had relatively limited costs. But Egypt is of an entirely different magnitude.
Egypt has a rather institutionalised, deep-rooted Islamist opposition network – the Muslim Brotherhood (which Tunisia never had). It is also an indispensable ally and cool-head in the whole Israel-Palestine set of issues. The choice in Egypt is much more difficult than choosing to support Yushchenko vs Kuchma, or ‘whoever’ against Lukashenko. Finding yourself on the wrong side of the fence in Egypt has huge implications for all kinds of issues – from Israel to how the EU is seen throughout the Muslim world and among European Muslims. The problem though is that there is no fence in Egypt to sit on. The revolutionary logic of such situations is that you can only be with or against the revolutionaries. Sitting on the fence equals opposing the street. And this is what the EU might increasingly become associated with, as it thinks is sits on the fence.